School Food – Is It As Bad As They Say?
There has been a lot of information and press around First Lady Michelle Obama’s Child Obesity Initiative and Let’s Move campaign along with Jamie Oliver’s program targeting school cafeteria food.
The timing of these programs was brought about through necessity as our nation’s children and adults are becoming as Super-Sized as the fast-food eateries that serve them.
There has obviously been a reason for them to raise a warning about school cafeteria food, as there are clearly some programs in need of a little improvement. However, before you go out and start launching an offensive against your child’s school cooks, please first check to see what they are actually serving. What you are seeing on TV is not necessarily what is happening in your child’s cafeteria.
A vast number of school districts have been picking up their own standard to make positive changes in the food they serve students. Many schools across the nation have been embracing the Farm to School program where they utilize local fruits and vegetables into the foods they serve. This supports local farms while getting fruits and vegetables at their peak of nutrition and flavor.
However, often these fresh from the farm products cost significantly more than products from contracted produce suppliers. This can have a serious impact on already dwindling budgets.
School cafeterias must serve foods that students will eat. This means the food needs to be somewhat familiar while tasting good. If students don’t eat, schools will not be able to keep their foodservice departments open.
Also, school foodservice departments must meet USDA, State Department of Education, and other state or local laws on nutrition guidelines. Creating meals that will meet all nutritional standards that children will want to eat while ensuring enough revenue to continue the program is a constant juggle.
Pressures from new state nutrition laws have given some good news for school foodservice departments. Food suppliers are now starting to offer foods that meet new dietary guidelines, such as switching to more whole grains, along with using less fat, sodium, and sugar. This makes providing nutritious meals much easier than before. Just because it looks like pizza, doesn’t mean that it is bad for them.
Many school districts are making pizza with whole wheat crusts and using fresh vegetables not just as toppings but pureed into the sauce.
The Corvallis School District Food Service Department in Corvallis, Oregon has been making significant changes to menu items in favor of making them more nutritious for several years. They supply meals not just to their own district, but a neighboring one, as well.
They also supply meals to numerous daycares, private schools, and the local Boys & Girls Club. Other districts and schools have requested meals from them, too.
One of the things that make this food service department stand out is its commitment to student health and wellness. They are active in their District Wellness Committee, Farm to School Program, the More Matters Veggie Promotion, Free Summer Meal Program, and the Sustainability Committee.
These programs have helped to shape the positive changes in their menus and a la carte offerings.
A central kitchen prepares all of the food for the elementary schools and some items for the secondary schools. An on-site bakery makes the majority of the breads, muffins, and crusts that go out to the various school cafeterias. Full salad bars are in each of the schools and offer a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, often from local farms as the season and cost permits.
Daily menus offer breakfast and multiple lunch entrée offerings every day, including vegetarian options. Common foods are still offered, their nutritional value improved. Meats, cheeses, and milk are also low fat.
As with everything, moderation is the key, both in school and at home. It’s not just about educating the child, but also the parents. Many schools and local community colleges offer fun classes on how to prepare more healthful meals, especially incorporating local fruits and vegetables. In some areas, access to local healthy foods can be an obstacle and cost more to families, who are also struggling to make ends meet. More programs are becoming available to help families get fresh fruits and vegetables into their own kitchens, including many farmers’ markets that are now accepting WIC coupons.
One way for parents to take an active role in student health and wellness is to become a part of their district Wellness Committee.
If your school district doesn’t have a Wellness Committee, it might be a good time to start one. Wellness Committees are typically made up of district staff and parents, as well as interested community members.
Dieticians, County Health Department employees, Farm to School personnel, local Park and Rec, School Board members, city and county workers often are interested and bring a good mix of perspectives and a desire to help support local schools.
District Wellness Committees are not just about school food, but about the total wellness of students, staff, and the community. This incorporates physical education with other programs which may support walking and biking to school, classroom snacks and rewards, non-food fundraising, and much more. These types of programs encourage students, parents, and staff to seek more healthful options.
Participating in wellness programs is a great way to have a positive impact on your child’s school. It also helps develop health and wellness in your community. Looking for productive ways to make a positive difference will make your child’s school experience that much richer.
It’s important to look at all sides of a problem. School nutrition and wellness programs often welcome positive and productive ideas, especially when submitted with a desire to learn. Ask questions and see what you can do to help.
You may be surprised by what you can accomplish. Even if you don’t have children in school, supporting your local schools can have a positive impact on your community. So, how does your local school district plan to improve student wellness?
Food Product Design
Corvallis School District Food Service Department
Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move