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Food Fight!

By Jennifer Prescott and Sascha Zuger | October November 2007
Toss out the old food at school.
Toss out the old food at school.

The heat is on to combat childhood obesity and diabetes, and school leaders are stepping up to get ideas cooking for healthy food.

Gristle burgers slapped onto sugary, white buns. Cookies bigger than the palm of a child’s hand. Greasy french fries drowning in puddles of ketchup. Chicken nuggets that resemble rubbery sponges left under the sink too long.
    We are what we eat and the food that has long been standard lunchroom fare for most of America’s students is the stuff of nightmares, building a nation of future leaders who are at risk for obesity-related illnesses, low on energy, and lacking fundamental knowledge of where our food comes from and how it can affect us. A school’s influence doesn’t stop at the cafeteria door, and what gets slapped on too many lunchroom trays is enough to send savvy staff members dialing for takeout options. The kids, unlucky lot, get what they get. 
    If that sticks in your craw, you’re not alone. School leaders disgusted with serving junk are turning to new, innovative food options that are giving big, bad school lunches the one-two punch. Broccoli, whole grains, and low-fat milk are proving to be powerful allies. The food that students eat in schools, as peripheral as it might seem to school administrators concerned with such crucial matters as academics, school safety, and technology infrastructure, has implications that are far-reaching and even deadly.

Green-Light Foods
    In the Lakeport School District in northern California, two third graders engage in a curious new form of one-upsmanship over who has the best lunch. This is not a typical argument about who has the best pudding cup or biggest bag of corn chips. Rather, these children are vying for reward stickers from their teacher, who tallies and assesses every child’s lunch for what the district calls “green-light foods,” or nutritious foods packed with whole grains and vitamins.
    Kelly Mather is the founder of Lakeport’s program, Healthy Kids Are Contagious, and hopes to see it spread nationwide. Mather, CEO of Sutter Lakeside Hospital and Center for Health in Lakeport, California, “began a partnership with our county schools in 2006 to help our children maintain their health and help the schools reduce absence due to illness,” she says. “All of our programs are based on the five keys to wellness, and we have a program for every grade level. One of the keys to wellness is positive choices and our Go! Foods program helps children understand the effect food has on their energy.”
    “We bring nutritious foods into the classroom and explain the green-light, yellow-light, and red-light rules,” says Mather.“Green-light foods are nutritious and provide the most energy. Yellow-light foods have nutritional value but have added sugar or fat. Red-light foods have no nutritional value and reduce energy. Our goal in 2007 is to have our local schools eliminate red-light foods from their cafeteria menus, vending machines, and classrooms.”
    Lakeport is not an anomaly. In the last few years, the emphasis on nutrition and healthy habits has increased in schools, according to The State of School Nutrition 2007, a report from the School Nutrition Association. The report points out that in 2005 only 30 percent of schools had nutrition requirements for foods and beverages sold by school food services; now that number has reached 87 percent. In addition, 97 percent of schools offer fat-free or low-fat milk and 96 percent offer fresh fruits and vegetables. A smaller number (52 percent) offer vegetarian options.
    This is “a clear indication of the tremendous strides made by school nutrition directors, managers, and employees nationwide to help children make the right food choices,” says School Nutrition Association President Mary Hill, SNS, who is also executive director of Child Nutrition Services for Jackson Public Schools in Mississippi.
     Many administrators have been prompted into action by a federal law enacted last year, which states that all schools accepting government food subsidies must develop a local wellness policy that involves parents, students, a representative from the School Food Authority, school board, school administrators, and the public. For example, schools must commit to developing lifelong wellness practices among their students and adhere to recognized dietary guidelines. Certain states also regulate foods sold in vending machines, school stores, and à la carte lines.
    The real impetus behind the wellness initiatives is this fact: Over the last several decades, childhood obesity has skyrocketed.

A Hefty Problem
    A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report based on the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey reveals that in 2003–04, 17.1 percent of children and adolescents 2–19 years of age (more than 12.5 million) were overweight. The reasons behind this increase have included everything from the sedentary lifestyle of the media revolution to cartoon-character junk-food ads to trans fats and oils in packaged products.
    Childhood obesity and weight issues not only affect a child’s social and emotional health, but they can also have a direct effect on his or her physical health. Obesity can lead to increased risk factors for high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, gallbladder disease, sleep apnea, and respiratory problems, as well as type II diabetes. About 177,000 young people under 20 years of age now live with diabetes, which used to be seen primarily in older adults.
    “Childhood diabetes greatly impacts what can be served in the classroom,” says Rich Bell, a fifth-grade teacher in O’Fallon, Illinois. The realities of diabetes can be sobering for students who may not realize the impact sugary soft drinks and sweets can have on their health. “I had a diabetic child in my class this year and allowed him to present information about juvenile diabetes,” says Bell. “This was very informative for the other students, and helped them appreciate their own good health.”

School Lunchrooms Under the Heat Lamp   
    From the Super Size Me backlash following the 2004 film that showed school lunchrooms in an embarrassingly bad light to the fact that the green movement (and its penchant for organic farming and locally grown food) has hit the mainstream, many schools are turning up the heat on offending food. Sometimes it’s parents who are firing up the grill. A new documentary, Two Angry Moms, focuses on how school lunch programs still lack quality—and how parents are key to demanding change. Amy Kafala, the film’s producer, was inspired by a Texas agricultural official who once said that it would take “2 million angry moms” to change school food in the U.S. Kafala joined with fellow “angry mom” Susan Rubin to expose and change what they viewed as a nutritional travesty in American schools.     
    Kids aren’t always pleased with what lands on their lunch trays either. According to a Weekly Reader survey, 80 percent of students nationwide “support the need to eat healthy food”  (see chart at right).What qualifies as healthy food is up for interpretation, and some food manufacturers are hoping to tempt an edamame-leery and swiss chard–shy crowd with solutions as creative (and suspect) as the Super Doughnut, which is designed to appeal to kids’ tastes but is stocked with vitamins, minerals, and protein.
    Ruth Jonen, director of food service for High School District 211 outside Chicago, offered the power-packed doughnut during a summer school test run and confesses that such options present a dilemma. “Its a trade-off,” she says. “You have to give the kids something for breakfast with a good nutritional profile that’s relatively inexpensive and easy to serve. Yet do you send the message that doughnuts are good for you?”

Get What You Get
    Nixing the sweets, grease, and fat in school foods isn’t as simple as it might sound. Healthy ingredients are often more expensive than the cheaper, junky standbys, and with budgets under pressure, schools are caught between passing the cost on to the students or serving the less healthful fare.
    Schools that rely on the government farm-commodity program to provide food to low-income students get what’s given to them. For example, free and reduced-price school lunches often rely heavily on meat and dairy products—the surplus that is donated through the program. While food served through the school lunch program must meet certain nutritional guidelines (for example, no more than 30 percent of calories in a week’s worth of food can come from fat), there is no requirement that food be fresh or frozen, canned or organic.  A pointed example: In 2004, a federal judge upheld a 2003 U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule stating that frozen, batter-coated french fries qualify as “fresh vegetables.” (If this seems shocking, consider that in 1981 the USDA attempted to classify ketchup as a vegetable under school lunch guidelines.) Districts that serve an à la carte menu are not required to stay within federal guidelines at all, although those in wealthier districts may sometimes offer better choices since the students can afford to pay for higher-priced, fresh produce.

Knocking Out the Fat
    There’s no doubt that messages delivered in schools—healthy or not—make a big impact. While many kids develop poor habits at home, schools are an excellent platform from which to stress the importance of healthy food choices. Programs like Mather’s in Lakeport address the problem in a classroom setting for several reasons. The amount of waking hours children spend in school indicates it is a logical place for them to receive nutritional education. Another benefit of teaching nutritional health in schools is to create a social environment in which healthy choices are not only accepted, but encouraged. The goal is that healthy habits instilled at school will carry over into children’s daily lives.
     At the South Hamilton Elementary School in Jewell, Iowa, a program called Veggie Victories is the result of a $15,000 grant from Hidden Valley Ranch, the salad dressing company. The grant includes a vegetable bar stocked with fresh produce, a physical activity of the month, and a veggie of the week, along with a classroom incentive program to excite students and encourage involvement. In addition, the school was also a recipient of a USDA grant that supplies food carts for the school and the funds to stock them with fresh fruits and vegetables. As students pass the carts, they can simply grab an apple, a banana, or a handful of snowpeas—all for free.
    “They eat up these veggies like crazy,” says principal Paul Hemphill. “We’ve seen a lot of positives from both of these programs. Students try new fruits and vegetables that they have not tried before, and may never have tried, and discover that they like them. They begin to prefer them over a junk-food snack. We’re hoping that carries over to help them make healthier choices in their lives.”
    Sometimes change comes from the statewide level. California has recently taken a stand and removed all offending foods from school cafeterias. Students will return this fall to find their soda dispensers filled with water and juices; baked snacks and whole-grain treats sitting in the candy and greasy chip rack; and many of their hot food entrées modified to fit the new guidelines or bumped off the menu entirely. Though financial costs will be slightly higher, the much higher cost to students’ health if the unhealthy foods had remained makes this a change for the better.
    Some schools have created their own onsite gardens and farms, where organic methods and composting combine environmental lessons with growing produce. This can be scaled down to window-box size and added to age-appropriate science lessons about germination and plant growth, or it can be a school-wide venture with significant lessons.

The Edible Schoolyard
    At the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California, healthy produce isn’t just supplied to the students—it’s actually grown by them. The students plant seeds; tend and harvest the vegetables; and eventually learn how to cook healthy, tasty recipes in a kitchen classroom.
    Planning for the Edible Schoolyard began in 1995, and today the one-acre organic garden (which replaced an asphalt parking lot) and kitchen classroom are a seamless part of the urban school’s day. The brainchild of chef Alice Waters and former school principal Neil Smith, the program teaches students how to grow, harvest, and prepare food while learning about fundamental principles of ecology.
    The process was collaborative from the start. Before launching the program, leaders at the school invited landscape architects, chefs, gardeners, teachers, and other professionals to participate in a design symposium and share their visions. Teachers and students pitched in to clear cement to make way for the soil, and the students designed the beds and built the fences. Today, the garden houses everything from fruit and olive trees to a chicken coop to medicinal and culinary herbs.

Two Angry Moms
    Rubin thinks such gardens are immensely valuable and should be in all schools. “It’s a way to inspire students to care about food,” she says. “It’s so different when you are growing the food. If peas are put in front of you and you are told they are good for you, that doesn’t mean anything. If you grow that pea and watch it flower, it will mean a lot more to you. That’s such a powerful teaching tool.” (For links and resources on how to spearhead your own educational community garden, visit
    No matter the approach, presenting good nutrition as something that gives new options with good foods—rather than focusing on taking away forbidden bad foods—can make students less resentful and more open to new experiences. The key to finding solutions that highlight this approach seems rooted in innovation and strong community involvement. We ignore the realities of what lurks inside school lunches at our own peril: What does serving junk food to children say about their value to us? School leaders must tackle the issue creatively while sending yesterday’s lunches to where they belong: the trash.  @

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