Redesigning School Food

Redesigning School Food

Tue 28 Jun 2011

Story by Gianna Cassetta and Cathy Schmelter
 

Picture this. Mid-morning in a SOAR classroom, students are relaxing on couches, floor pillows, yoga chairs, curled up with independent reading books. They are munching on morning snacks - celery sticks, apple slices, bananas, pears, raisins.

This is a typical scene in the daily lives of many students at a SOAR school. After starting a charter school in Harlem 12 years ago, we knew that to do this the right way we had to get as serious about what the kids ate as we were about how they learned to read. The SOAR network is made up of schools that take a holistic attitude to children’s education, and food is a central part of this.

So, when we started SOAR in Denver, nutrition was part of our year-long planning process. Knowing how important it is for the success of students, we created a wellness policy that calls for pupils to eat two snacks a day that are a whole fruit or a whole vegetable. And our lunches, which we subsidize for the 70% of our students who qualify for free and reduced priced lunch, are vegetarian (that’s right—the dirty “V” word”), prepared fresh daily, served with fresh fruit and vegetables every day, and are free of high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial preservatives, colors, flavors, and sweeteners.

Plus, high quality food is built into our culture. Everywhere you look, something food-related going on. We established nutrition guiding principles that direct our work, hosted a screening of the movie “Lunch Line”, integrated where food comes from into our lesson plans, held a parent nutrition discussion with a registered dietitian, offered cooking demonstrations, raised money through Chipotle for a farm tour and did tons of taste testing with students and their families.

Most parents at our school know that getting children to eat healthy foods is a daily battle. We have been asked, why not throw a hamburger onto the lunch menu once a week? At least a turkey sandwich? Why not allow animal crackers as a snack? It will make the students happier, fuller, and therefore better able to learn, won’t it?

While it would certainly make our work easier, serving unhealthy food just isn’t an option. We are faced everyday with higher food costs, no food-service staff, processing claims and even cleaning our own tables. Seems challenging, but for us it’s all about what’s right for our kids. The decisions we’ve made about food support the health and well-being of our children and are science based. They’re also kind to the environment.

Eating whole nutritious foods, mostly plant-based, leads to sustained energy. This means children are better able to focus, concentrate, and perform well academically throughout the school day. Developing healthy eating habits in childhood will lead to healthier eating habits as adults, and lessen risks of developing obesity, cancer, high blood pressure and heart disease.

There is a lot of work still ahead of us. Parent education is essential, and fortunately we have a strong, parent-led nutrition committee to support this work. A creative, appealing menu is equally essential. USDA regulations limit what is affordable for schools to serve—healthy, unprocessed proteins like tofu and seitan simply aren’t reimbursable, and vegetarian menus could easily consist of loads of beans, cheese, and milk, as well as highly processed “fake meats”.

We are moving from a world of malnutrition due to lack of food to one of malnutrition due to lack of nutritious food and we want to change this. Transforming the way children think about food is a process, and one we are absolutely committed to. What kids put into their bodies is serious business, and has long term ramifications. Hearing kids ask questions like, “Does this have high fructose corn syrup”, or “Is this the good kind of fat”, or “Is this healthy?” is enough evidence that this work is absolutely worthwhile.

About the authors: Gianna Cassetta is the Co-Executive Director of SOAR Schools, and Cathy Schmelter is a registered dietitian and a SOAR Schools Board Member.

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