Mystery meat has left the building. In school lunchrooms across the country, students are filling their cafeteria trays with more fresh produce and award-winning nutritional entrees as schools change the way they approach nutrition. Chefs and community members are coming to the table — bolstered by national initiatives like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign — giving more school administrators and cafeteria workers the necessary tools to help foster students’ healthy eating habits.
So what new items are taking the place of the Salisbury “steak” and “chicken” nuggets of days past?
“Healthy ones!” said Diane Pratt-Heavner of the School Nutrition Association, which issued a report in September highlighting the top trends in nutrition for 2010. A majority of schools are boosting their whole grain offerings and half are providing more vegetarian items. NEA, which places child nutrition as a priority, applauds the many schools that are seeking locally-grown food, collaborating with chefs and participating in national nutrition grant programs and contests.
Here’s a taste of how schools and creative initiatives are bringing these trends into the lunchroom.
Howard County’s Top Chef Competition
In 2009, Howard County, Maryland’s Healthy Howard initiative dished this challenge to students: create a healthy lunchroom recipe under 700 calories with available ingredients. Atholton High School students, who won the inaugural contest with their spicy buffalo chicken wrap, discovered that this was no piece of cake. “It gave them a great opportunity to develop an original recipe,” said Liela Razik, Family and Consumer Science department teacher. “It made them aware of how hard it is to meet those guidelines.” After Razik’s students perfected their recipe, which included oven-baked chicken and a whole-wheat tortilla, and won the taste-test judging, the dish was served in cafeterias across the county. The team was further recognized for their efforts with a visit the White House. The competition continued in 2010 with Marriotts Ridge High School winning for their BBQ quesadilla, and will be offered again in Howard and other counties with funding from the State Department of Education.
Whole Foods’ Great American Salad Bar Project
Gone are the days of soggy iceberg salads in lunchrooms, if Whole Foods Market has anything to say about it. A new effort by the company and Food, Family, Farming (F3) set out to provide salad bars in 300 schools this school year. But by late September they’d raised $1.4 million — enough for 545. “Having a salad bar is the single most impactful difference that a school can make when it comes to changing the lives of the students at the school for the better,” said Marci Frumkin, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods. Fundraising for the salad bars has been taking place at stores and online. Any school within a 50-mile radius of a Whole Foods store is eligible to apply using an online salad bar application, and accepted schools will receive salad bar equipment valued at about $2,500. Food service directors at the winning schools will select the offerings for the salad bar, but the application stipulates that fresh fruits, veggies and proteins be the stars of these bars.
Bolthouse Farms’ Veggie Vending
Carrots were already a well-liked food at Mason High School in Mason, Ohio, but a veggie vending machine might make them even more popular. Carrot vending machines were installed in September at Mason and Fayetteville-Manlius High School in Syracuse, New York as a pilot component of Bolthouse Farms’ new push to encourage people to “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food.” At Mason, Darlene Hicks, supervisor of food service management for the district, said the carrot machine is the only vending machine permitted for use during school hours. Bolthouse will decide in several weeks whether the carrot contraption will remain or if the program will expand.
Recipes for Healthy Kids
The new Recipes for Healthy Kids contest, part of the Let’s Move campaign, offers schools across the country the chance to cook up their own healthy creations. Teams of a chef, school nutrition professional, at least one student and at least one parent or community member are invited to whip up a recipe in the Whole Grains, Dark Green or Orange Vegetables or Dry Beans and Peas categories. “The idea is to increase the intake of these food items and healthier meals in general. It’s all part of the healthy meals movement,” said Eileen Ferruggiaro of the Child Nutrition Division of the USDA, a sponsor of the contest. Recipes, which will be compiled in an online recipe book, will be judged on nutrition, student involvement, creativity, ease of use in schools and recipe presentation. Finalists from each category will cook-off at the White House and winning schools will receive thousands of dollars apiece.
Farm to School
Farm to School programs – now operating in all 50 states, at 10,000-plus schools and counting – give students a hands-on chance to connect with nature and nutrition. And kids are really digging it! In Farm to School programs, students learn about nutrition and healthy eating, grow their own school garden and prepare meals of local produce either from their own garden or local farms, according to Debra Eschmeyer of the national Farm to School organization. “When kids are growing good, they have fun with it,” she said. “It’s not just about putting food on a tray.” Not only do Farm to School programs grant students a chance to literally taste the fruits of their labor, they offer teachers a mechanism for using food to enhance curriculums, transforming gardens into live learning labs for science, math and more. Each school’s program is unique, based on regional growing seasons and local community resources. One program in Vermont holds a “Junior Iron Chef” competition in March, challenging students to fashion meals around winter vegetables. Minnesota’s School Nutrition Association campaign, “I Dig My Farmer!” (complete with T-shirts) celebrates their farm – school ties.
For more information on childhood nutrition and obesity, visit NEA HIN.