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Can Schools Really Serve Healthy Food?

By:  Pamela A. Eaton, FCSI, LEED AP BD+C
Senior Associate – Washington, DC

“Yuck” pronounced my five-year old.  Yuck?  It’s a banana.  You LOVE bananas!  Two weeks ago you wouldn’t eat anything BUT bananas!  Now multiply that by 25 kids in a class, multiple classes in a grade, multiple grades in a school and multiple schools in a precinct.  Oh yeah, and give the kids a bigger vocabulary.  And comments by parents, and nutritionists, the FDA and the First Lady. Oh yeah, and Congress – because they have nothing better to do but discuss whether pizza sauce is a vegetable.  And that’s just the menu.  They all want to weigh in on how it’s grown, processed, cleaned and disposed of!

But one thing at a time.  Menu.  How do today’s schools provide healthy meals that students will actually eat, enjoy, and hopefully use as building blocks for not only today’s lessons but also life-long healthy habits?  Not surprisingly, behavior that is affected by elimination of choices reverts as soon as the choice is available again.  We don’t change our kids’ habits by hiding the cookies.  We have to let them choose – so we have to help them choose better – and give them something to choose from.

The Cornell University Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs found that a few simple steps increased the likelihood that kids would select better choices for lunch.  No brainers like putting fresh fruit in attractive bowls versus serving pans, and placing the fruit at the end of the line where students wait to pay (versus chips and cookies) significantly increased fruit sales at one Minnesota school the Center studied.

This falls right in line with what we know about food in general – so much of the enjoyment of food comes from experiences beyond taste.  What do the kids experience when they walk into the cafeteria?  Do they have the same reaction as adults to the thought of going to a “cafeteria?”  College students get to go to The Marketplace, The Café, or The Commons. Can a name change make the food seem better?  What do they smell?  Fresh bread?  Or floor cleaner?  What do they see?  Fresh fruit?  Nicely displayed food?  Yummy sounding names?  The Dyson School at Cornell found that more descriptive names increased sales – “creamy corn” outsold “corn” by 27%.

Other easy steps recommended by Cornell include moving chocolate milk behind regular milk, giving kids a choice of two fresh vegetables rather than a single option, and simply asking if they want fruit or a salad at check out.  They really aren’t very different from adults…

Then there is the actual recipe.  The discussion I have with clients seems to go one of two ways – we want to eliminate all chance of cross contamination from raw protein, so everything comes in pre-prepared – or we want to cook from scratch.  Thankfully, more are moving to the scratch cooking and better education in food safety.  Once you take control of your ingredients, you can super charge your meal components.  Maybe pizza sauce CAN be a vegetable.  Who says it can only include tomatoes?  Why not kale or spinach?  Carrots have natural sugars – they make the sauce sweeter without sugar.  Zucchini and squash will also fold into a sauce without a drastic change in taste.  Pastas are now regularly made with vegetable paste.  These are small steps, but a made from scratch sauce over whole wheat spinach pasta is worlds away from canned sauce over bleached flour noodles.  Maybe we can get to chunky spaghetti sauce and whole vegetables on pizza in a couple of months.

So, where do we start in the development of better menus and menu items?  The National Farm to School Network looks to connect K-12 schools and local farms.  Whole Foods sponsors Salad Bars for schools.  Knowledge is everywhere – and consultants have some amazing ideas of ways to make things better.  For example, Greg Christian at Beyond Green, is passionate about looking into ways to make schools more sustainable with plans that include everything from scratch cooking to zero waste schools.  He pushes an “evolution” in contrast to Jamie Oliver’s “revolution.”  We all know changing culture in education is not an overnight thing.  Other consultants work with professional chefs to provide instruction to school foodservice staff to better their skills and to work with kids to get them engaged in food and food culture.

As I struggle with my own family’s eating habits, I have found the internet to be an amazing source of information.  Of course, you need to carefully weigh the information out there – but, wow, there’s a lot of information and a lot of passion on this topic!

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