Kids. Will. Eat. Good. Food.
The New England parents’ guide to better school meals
BY STEVE HOLT / PHOTO KATIE NOBLE
I’m sitting on a stool much too short for me, my knees bumping against the underside of a long—and definitely kid-sized—table. The joyful conversations of first- and second-graders fill a cavernous room made bright by sunlight streaming in through big windows on walls decorated by pictures of fruits and veggies, motivational slogans and bright paint.
As the children eat and chat, lunchroom monitors quietly keep watch over the proceedings. A group of teachers sits around an adult-sized table off to the side. Everything about this moment—a typical lunch period at the Stefanik elementary school in Chicopee, Massachusetts—transports me immediately back to my own grade school days.
Everything, that is, except the food.
My red plastic lunch tray contains the following: sliced turkey with the perfect portion of gravy; three florets of still-warm steamed broccoli (the veggie bar is quite popular among the students); a cup of warm butternut squash casserole—just slightly sweetened; crisp apple slices; Red Bliss mashed potatoes. A roll and a carton of milk round out this filling, delicious and mostly locally sourced meal.
I eagerly dive in for a third… a fourth… a fifth bite, as a second-grader down the table shoots me a puzzled look.
“Do you like your turkey dinner?” I ask her.
Her eyes become saucers as she nods enthusiastically, still chewing. Her answer confirms what the food service staff here keeps telling me: Turkey dinner is beloved throughout the Chicopee school district.
Greta Shwachman, who serves with Food Corps in the Chicopee schools, stops by the table to offer the kids a taste of a healthy dessert the kitchen is testing: a baked cinnamon tortilla topped with local strawberry salsa. Kids’ hands shoot in the air for a bite.
“The chip tastes like Cinnamon Toast Crunch!” one boy exclaims, signaling the “healthy strawberry shortcake” is a certified hit and should be added to a lunch menu in the fall.
The day after I visit, lettuce picked by the school’s popular garden club will go into a salad and be served to the whole school.
The scene in Chicopee is so different from the image many of us have of the school cafeteria: energetic, smiling staff serving delicious, colorful, often locally sourced foods to children—some of them quite young—who are willing to take and try them.
Throughout the region—from Bangor to Burlington to Bridgeport—schools like Stefanik are proving that kids will eat healthy food. That nutrition and sustainability don’t have to break the bank. But for every school whose food program makes the honor roll, there are a handful that simply don’t make the grade. Conduct a Google image search for “bad school lunches” and you’ll see the depths to which some school cafeterias have fallen: lukewarm slabs of frozen pizza; unrecognizable bowls of brown mush; room-temperature French fries; and chips, soda and candy for miles.
How did we get here? Pretty methodically, actually.
A Brief History of School Food
Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Act in 1946, but school feeding programs began much earlier than that—right here in New England.
In 1894, the private enterprise New England Kitchen began preparing and delivering hot, nutritious meals to poor students in a handful of Boston high schools. The program is believed to be among the first—if not the first—in the United States.
“The teachers are unanimous in the belief that the luncheons are helping the children both physically and mentally,” wrote program director and nutritionist Ellen Richards in a 1910 report in the Journal of Home Economics. “They are more attentive and interested in the lessons during the last hour of the morning and the result in their recitations gives the proof.”
States began to pass laws authorizing school boards to provide meals to students. By 1937, 15 states had passed such a law, with four—including Vermont—making special provisions to distribute meals to needy children at low or no cost. Then, in 1946, the National School Lunch Act created a consistent, formalized federal program.
The act had as its mission improving the nutrition of America’s children following the Great Depression. But there was a second mission: to create a commodities market for American farmers who’d been hit by shrinking food prices during and after the economic crash. Participating school districts would receive cash subsidies and commodity foods from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for every meal they served, as well as assistance—initially—purchasing equipment to outfit kitchens. While the government had been purchasing surplus food from farmers for more than a decade before the school lunch program was initiated, the 1946 legislation created a more formal pipeline between large American farms and school lunchrooms—a marriage that “continues to create tension to this day,” says Scott Richardson, partner and co-founder of Northbound Ventures, a Boston-based food policy consulting firm.
The school meal program functions more or less today as when it was created, though it’s much bigger now. What was a lunch program has ballooned to include breakfast, after-school snacks and even dinner in some schools, behind rising concerns for undernourished kids. And school feeding programs themselves have not been immune to the influx of cheap convenience foods into the American diet, the decline of cooking at home and school districts’ shifting of funds away from labor and infrastructure spending in lunchrooms.
“Everyone in the country got dormant,” says Joanne Lennon, who’s witnessed this transformation first-hand as Chicopee’s food service director for the last 25 years. “The fast-food generation came through, took over. They got rid of dishwashers, and they got rid of food service equipment because everything was quick and convenient.”
But Lennon says that after decades moving in the direction of cheaper, less-nutritious school food—the wrong direction—she’s observed and is helping to lead a turning of the ship toward something better.
“We’re finding now that we made a mistake.”
For all the brokenness and bureaucracy in school feeding programs today, innovation abounds in many places around New England. A snapshot from around the region provides a glimpse into the exciting thinking going into improving both the food children eat in schools and the nutrition education they receive.
A regional approach: Experts say that if we want to improve school food and bolster local food production, the six New England states must work together. The National Farm-to-School Network’s Northeast Regional Steering Committee is taking the success of states like Vermont and seeing how it can apply those successes to the other states.
“If we are actually achieving our goal—not just in schools, but in other institutions, higher education, hospitals—we’re going to supply that within New England,” says Betsy Rosenbluth, who heads up both Vermont’s Farm-to-School Network and the region’s steering committee. She says the group is looking at how to improve this pipeline by strengthening regional food supply chains.
“Maine supplies so many blueberries, does it matter that Vermont kids eat Maine blueberries instead of Vermont blueberries?”
Farm-to-school: Because of its geography, New England is a leader in connecting local farmers with nearby schools. In Chicopee, Lennon partnered early on with Joe Czajkowski (Se-kow-ski), whose large organic farm in Hadley provides much of the local food served in the districts. With the help of a grant from the Henry J. Kendall Foundation, the district has increased its local food spending from $10,000 in 2014 to nearly $200,000 this year and hired sustainability coordinator Rachel Harb. And by 2018, Lennon aims to be spending about 20% of the district’s more than $5 million school meals budget with local farms.
Farm-to-school helps entire communities—not just individual schools or students. A 2015 study by the Vermont Farm to School Network—whose goal is to have more than half the food served in schools sourced sustainably and locally by 2025—found that every dollar a school spends on local food contributes an additional 60 cents to the local economy.
Central kitchens: Under the leadership of food service director Lonnie Burt, the Hartford Public Schools are eyeing the possible construction of a Central Kitchen Commissary “to create a central workspace to process ingredients and deliver to each of the schools,” according to Rachel Harb, who is working with the district as a consultant. She says the commissary model will make it possible for the schools to incorporate more from-scratch meals and more local ingredients into the menu. In some cases, she adds, the commissary would also supply fully prepared and packaged hot and cold meals to deliver to schools that currently do not have food production facilities. The central kitchen model has been implemented successfully in cities like Oakland, California, and Washington, DC.
Education: Lunch staff can put out a bowl of hummus, but if a fourth-grader doesn’t know what it is, she’s not going to take it. Districts throughout the region are integrating nutrition education into the holistic development of students, both in the classroom and out in the garden, showing students where their food comes from. At its best, this education intersects with traditional subjects. In Milton, Vermont, teacher Rick Scharf takes his classes into the garden for hands-on biology lessons from composting, growing produce and even cultivating mushrooms.
Chefs: As districts move back toward meal preparation after years of warming up frozen meals or serving pre-packaged products, the kitchen staff is going to need to re-learn some knife skills. In addition to the value they add to a kitchen staff, the presence of a chef in a school cafeteria has been shown to improve both vegetable selection and consumption in schools. In New London, Connecticut, a chef-founded company called Brigade will put trained chefs into six schools there this fall.
Taste tests: Involving students—even the young ones—in meal planning increases their interest in what cafeterias are serving and reduces waste. It can be as simple as distributing samples of a possible menu item (such as the tortilla chips and strawberry salsa in Chicopee) and asking them if they like it. It’s been successful in the Providence (Rhode Island) Public School District, where University of Rhode Island students regularly include taste tests of items containing locally produced foods in their nutrition education programming.
Breakfast in the classroom: Nearly 16 million children live in food insecure households, and many of these kids arrive at school having not eaten or not eaten enough. We all know what it’s like trying to concentrate on an empty stomach. Some schools that offer breakfast in the classroom, “after the bell,” are seeing better participation in the program, improved attendance and even higher test scores.
Parent activism: Fed up with subpar food in the Boston Public Schools, Stephanie Shapiro Berkson and other district parents formed a parent advocacy group in 2015 to improve the situation. The group coalesced last year as the district floated a cost-saving proposal wherein choices would be limited to only the most popular meals (think pizza, chicken sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, etc.) and Cocoa Puffs would be labeled as a “vegetarian” option. In part because of the public backlash from the Better Food for Boston Schools Action Network and other parents, the proposal never reached fruition. “Come on strong and be relentless,” Berkson says about the group’s approach, “until the ultimate ideal goal is achieved.”
Looking at the issue of school food on paper—the hulking bureaucracy it’s become, the corporate food companies jockeying for a piece of the pie, the massive number of low-income students, the gradual decline of cooking—it’d be easy to get cynical about improving the situation on a regional, let alone national basis.
I nearly did.
Then I hear the stories about places where real transformation is happening. I read about a growing fervor in the halls of power to improve childhood nutrition. I meet visionaries like Joanne Lennon in Chicopee, who, a quarter-century ago, was already hard at work fighting to give her students the quality, nutritious food that will help them perform at their best. I see a third-grader stop at the salad bar on her way to her lunch table to grab a few carrots and a spear of broccoli.
And I have hope.
How to be an Advocate
Given the agricultural and educational resources at our disposal in New England, what can we do as parents and advocates to ensure all our children are offered foods at school that fuel healthy bodies—and minds?
A lot, as it turns out, can be done on the school, local, state and national levels, though school food consultant Scott Richardson, co-founder and partner at Northbound Ventures, says it’s crucial parents understand the locus of power for each decision point and “advocate for what you can affect.”
Investigate and ask questions.
What exactly is the food situation at your child’s school? Do you know? Join them for lunch one day and see for yourself. Pay attention to the amount of fruits and vegetables, the food’s presentation, the demeanor of the staff and the amount of time kids are given to eat. If joining your child for lunch is not an option, talk to them about these questions at home and have your kid snap a picture of his or her lunches over a week. “Menus don’t tell the truth,” says Susan Trotz, a retired school counselor in Boston who joined the Better Food for Boston Schools Action Network.
Make sure administrators get it.
Take your questions directly to the principal or food service director. Enter with an open mind and a willingness to learn: How does the district procure its food? How are decisions made about the foods that are served? Most importantly, “Ensure that the school administrators clearly and profoundly understand the link between nutrition and wellness including physical and mental health and behavior as well as academic achievement,” says Berkson.
… and if they don’t?
Push for visionary leadership.
In many of the A strong decision-maker at the top is probably the single most important building block for a successful school food program. This point came up over and over with stakeholders throughout the region. One need only look at the Chicopee schools to that it's true: Joanne Lennon has been at the helm of the district's food service department for 25 years, has always had an eye toward nutrition and in 2003 was among the first in the country to implement a farm-to-school program.
Bring back cooking!
In many of the region’s cities and towns, meals are not prepared on-site at schools. In some cases, meals are prepared at a central kitchen and distributed to school cafeterias, but for the most part districts choose to outsource their meal preparation to large food service organizations that deliver frozen, pre-packaged meals for reheating. One of the best first steps a parent or advocate can make is to pressure administrators to reintroduce cooking—even in small doses to begin—to the school cafeteria.
At the Parker Varney Elementary School in Manchester, New Hampshire, the students themselves pushed for better food, pressuring the district into investing $175,000 to remake the cafeteria’s kitchen—which had long lay dormant. With meals now cooked on-site daily, students have three choices at lunch—a hot lunch, a salad or a deli item—and are loving it.
“I’m always happy whenever I eat here,” third-grader Cassandra Rodriguez told the New Hampshire Union-Leader in April, between bites of her scratch-made corn dog.
Become an expert in contracts.
For districts that outsource food preparation to a vendor, contracts are put out to bid or renewed about every three years, says Ellen Parker, executive director of Project Bread in Massachusetts. Parker says these contracts—which amount to a “financial negotiation about the public health of children”—come and go, mostly under the radar from parents, teachers and certainly students. She points to the example of the Lynn public schools, which she says ignored input from groups and parents and hired a vendor deemed to be subpar in terms of nutrition.
“Who sits at the table for the kids?” she asks. “Nobody is pounding their hand on the table saying our kids deserve better food. The process is not a public discussion.”
Don’t rush the kids through lunch.
School kids used to get an hour for lunch. These days, lunch period is more like 15 or 20 minutes—a casualty of pressures to constrain budgets and boost classroom time (along with standardized test scores). By the time a child gets through the line and finds a seat, his or her eating time could dwindle to as little as seven minutes. “If you had that short amount of time and you had a choice between a chicken patty or a garden salad, which one would you choose?” asks Lennon of the Chicopee Public Schools. “Not the garden salad—takes too long to eat that.”
Also, the less time a student has to eat, the more food ends up in the trash. A 2015 study conducted by researchers from Harvard School of Public Health and other organizations and published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that students who are given less than 20 minutes to eat consume 13% less of their main entrée, 12% less of their vegetables and 10% less milk than those given more than 25 minutes to eat. They were almost 20% less likely to select a fruit in the first place, too.
Ensure that good school nutrition is accessible to all.
Some children receive as many as half their daily calories from school breakfasts and lunches. Many of these students would not be able to afford such nutrition otherwise. Let’s not forget that school lunch was founded as a safety net for students who are economically disadvantaged.
In addition to strengthening the nutrition guidelines for food served in school, the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids bill also allowed more needy school districts to offer universal free breakfasts and lunches to all students without the burden of collecting eligibility paperwork from families or differentiating low-income students from other students in the lunchroom. This provision is currently under fire, however, in a federal bill working its way through Congress—House Bill 5003—that would both cut its funding and reinstall the reporting mechanisms that used to add hours of paperwork to food service directors’ plates.