More Salad, Please!

School lunches get a much-needed makeover with a little help from school gardens and new nutritional guidelines.

January 1, 2015

GreenIssue 10: January/February 2015Policy

It’s a sunny noontime in late November at Manzo Elementary School in Tucson’s Barrio Hollywood. The kids are gathered on the lawn in the school’s central courtyard. Standing on stage, Principal Mark Alvarez asks them, “Who’s ready to eat some salad?” The students respond with a resounding “Yeah!” Principal Alvarez shares the stage with Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild; the director of the Pima County Health Department, Dr. Francisco Garcia, the superintendent of Tucson Unified School District, Dr. H.T. Sanchez, and many others from the school and community. They are celebrating the first meal served in any Pima County school that includes fruit and vegetables sourced directly from a garden that the children themselves tended.

6-year-old, Kyana Villa, digs right in to her salad.

6-year-old, Kyana Villa, digs right in to her salad.

Last year, the Arizona Department of Health Services issued guidelines that establish safe practices for growing and harvesting food from school gardens. Garcia and Nick Henry, the farm-to-child program manager at the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, had a lot to do with that. Garcia says that he “spent significant political capital” to convince the state to adopt reasonable guidelines. Henry, a gardening and composting aficionado, was deeply involved in working out the details. Manzo is the first school in Pima County to become certified.

Manzo’s school garden project is part of a nationwide effort to improve the nutritional quality of food served to children in schools. U.S. schools began providing lunches in 1853, when a private social service agency in New York offered meals for “poverty stricken children.” The practice spread throughout the United States, and in 1932, the federal government started subsidizing these programs. In 1946, the National School Lunch Act started distributing commodity food to schools and reimbursing schools for meals served to children from low-income families nationwide.

(Left) Kellie Sheehan, a UA Community and School Garden intern, harvests lettuce with Ulysses Martinez, age 6, at Manzo Elementary.

(Left) Kellie Sheehan, a UA Community and School Garden intern, harvests lettuce with Ulysses Martinez, age 6, at Manzo Elementary.

In my day—in the 1950s and ’60s—school lunches consisted of unrecognizable blobs of some sort of meat and vegetable concoction served with syrupy canned fruit salad and a little carton of milk. In my kid’s day—1980s and ’90s—it was tacos, hamburgers, and a candy bar and soda from the school vending machine.

But since then, as childhood obesity rates have steadily increased, policy efforts have been pursued at the local and state levels to improve school food. For example, in 2006, the Arizona legislature prohibited elementary, middle, and junior high schools from selling “sugared, carbonated beverages and all other foods of minimal nutritional value” on school campuses.

But it was not until passage of the federal 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) that a serious attempt was made to address what we serve to kids during the school day. Among other system changes, HHFKA increases the number of servings of fruits and vegetables, and requires that half of the grain products served be whole grains. It reduces the amount of sodium and calories permitted, and eliminates trans fats. Tater Tots are no longer counted as vegetables (nor is ketchup being considered). HHFKA also increases the federal reimbursement rate for school meals.

Joseph Norzagoray, 6, harvests Swiss chard from a Manzo garden bed.

Joseph Norzagoray, 6, harvests Swiss chard from a Manzo garden bed.

Many have criticized HHFKA as being an unwanted intrusion into personal choice and an expansion of the “nanny state.” However, a strong case can be made for supporting federal policy that provides healthy food to schoolchildren based on the recent steep increase in obesity and in obesity-related diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, among children as well as adults, and the documented impact of obesity on our nation in terms of health-care costs, lost workplace productivity, and even military readiness.

Implementing the new nutritional standards for school lunches has not been easy. Changing standards does not mean that chefs—or school food service directors—will suddenly know how to use these new ingredients to prepare tasty meals that children accept. Indeed, common complaints in the media about the new standards include that the food tastes bad and that children leave the lunchroom hungry.

Along with fellow kindergarteners, Ulysses Martinez, 6, harvests greens for their lunchtime salads.

Along with fellow kindergarteners, Ulysses Martinez, 6, harvests greens for their lunchtime salads.

It’s true: kids are picky eaters. Shirley Sokol, the director of food services for the Tucson Unified School District, says, “Our perpetual challenge is to keep the students’ interest in the menu and to support a menu with tasty, nutritious meals.” TUSD has worked hard to implement the new standards in a way that satisfies the students. “My focus is to bring the fun back to food,” Sokol says. No small task for someone who oversees the preparation of 40,000 meals every day. Under her guidance, TUSD conducts taste tests, offers samples, and creates innovative menu designs and packaging to encourage students to try new items. Outside research supports these efforts. One study showed that children are significantly more likely to eat carrots labeled as “X-ray Vision Carrots” than if they are unnamed—one reason that the school district has developed choices like “upside down lasagna” and “angry shrimp” for new entrees. Fresh fruits and vegetables are now presented in clear packaging so that their colors can encourage students to choose them. As a result, participation in school lunch programs, which had dwindled when HHFKA was first implemented, has now started to increase.

But those responsible for preparing school meals do struggle with the new requirements. Delgado’s Catering prepares 3,500 meals each day for 23 local charter schools. Owner Adan Delgado reports that he has had problems finding sources for items that meet the new standards. Several large vendors have pulled out of the school food market since passage of HHFKA. Even when healthy food is available, it is more expensive. Even with HHFKA’s 6 cent per meal increase in the Federal reimbursement rate (from $2.98 per meal to $3.04 per meal for free school lunches), costs are still a concern. Delgado says that regular chicken nuggets cost two cents each, while those breaded in whole wheat cost five cents each. He says he develops menus based on what administrators tell him the students like, and they do not seem to like the foods that comply easily with HHFKA. Delgado thinks that is because they are not used to eating these healthy foods at home.

“Kids don’t like wraps or hummus,” he says. “They go home hungry and complain to their parents that the food is bad.” Delgado believes that the new standards will not gain in popularity until there is a “change in the hearts and minds at home.”

Back at Manzo Elementary School, where children are involved in planting, nurturing, and harvesting fresh food, students are learning to try—and enjoy—healthy foods. When asked about the salad on her lunchroom tray, one first grader told me, “I never tried it before—looking at it, it looks gross.” But then she enthusiastically stabs a forkful of lettuce and strawberries, and continues while chewing. “But yum! I ate it because I grew it, and it is good.”

Merrill Eisenberg is an applied anthropologist who is retired from the University of Arizona’s Zuckerman College of Public Health.

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