By Cindy Long
April 8, 2010 — When British chef and healthy eating advocate Jamie Oliver brought his hit TV show “Food Revolution” to Huntington, West Virginia (once named the country’s “unhealthiest town” by the Associated Press), he found sugary strawberry milk, instant potatoes from a box – even pizza for breakfast.
The show drew much-needed attention to the unhealthy state of school lunches in many of our public schools, but it also portrayed food service workers as being indifferent, even hostile, to menu and food preparation changes that would beef up the nutritional value of student meals.
Not so, says Pat Lieberman, food service manager and cook at Sayreville War Memorial High School in Parlin, New Jersey.
“Most food service professionals know that healthy lunches are another important part of a great education,” she says. “When you nurture the body, you nurture the mind.”
In 2005, the same year Jamie Oliver initiated the “Feed me Better” campaign to cut junk food in British Schools, Lieberman’s New Jersey high school got rid of its fryer and took salt off the menu. They started to portion out smaller meals, to sell snacks and chips (baked, not fried!) ala carte, and to serve more vegetables and salads.
“Some students did complain a little, but they got used to it,” she says. “I think they appreciate [the healthy options] we offer. We now make a variety of fresh salads every day — like Greek, taco, grilled chicken, and tuna — that have become student favorites.”
As new legislation moves through Congress, farm fresh salads will become the favorite lunch fare at even more schools. Last week the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 cleared the Senate Agricultural Committee. The bill would commit an additional $4.5 billion to child-nutrition programs over the next 10 years.
It’s definitely a step in the right direction – the bill, which reauthorizes the Childhood Nutrition Act of 1966, provides the first real increase in funding in 40 years. But health advocates like the National Education Association (NEA) Health Information Network believe Congress can do even more.
“This legislation is a critical step in bringing tangible improvements to the school meal programs—which will in turn have a direct impact on the readiness of students to learn. However, we hope that Congress will continue to look for additional sources of funding for more robust legislation,” says Jerald Newberry, executive director of NEA’s Health Information Network. “We’ll do our part by continuing to partner with other national organizations to give school employees the tools they need to help children be healthy, active and learning.”
Cafeteria worker Marie Knutson calls it a no-brainer.
“How can we expect children to develop and grow if we don’t feed them healthy meals, especially when we don’t know what they’re getting home,?” says a Knutson who works in food services at Lien Elementay in Amery, Wisconsin.
Knutson’s school has begun to serve more fruits and vegetables as snacks as well as with lunches – many of which are harvested from the school’s new garden – but she says they still buy too much processed, prepackaged food, mainly because it’s less expensive.
“The problem is, we only have so much money,” she says, which is why she hopes the full Senate will pass a more comprehensive bill that supports President Obama’s original $10 billion budget request. “We simply need more funding to feed our students properly. It’s part of educating the whole child.”