Story by April Neujean

It Doesn’t Count until They Swallow: Food Education beyond Food Reformation

When I started working as Food Services Director at Samuel J. Green Charter in New Orleans the food in the cafeteria typically consisted of highly processed “mystery meats” covered in a grayish, gelatinous gravy served alongside overcooked canned vegetables and fruit cocktail in heavy syrup. The middle school students called the food “slop” and usually went straight from the serving line to the garbage can. What message of caring do we send when we can’t even serve our kids a decent meal? I wanted to show all of the students how much we really did care and that we could do better.

These days we are hearing more and more about the importance of improving school food and the vital work around creating healthier menus with locally sourced produce for every child. Our children are facing a health crisis because of what they eat. Despite the increased traction in a movement that now includes health professionals, chefs, celebrities, and even the First Lady, like so many of our nation’s largest problems, it is not that simple.

In addition to finding money, staff, sustainably grown local foods, equipment, and many other resources to improve the quality of food in schools, we actually have to ensure that students are eating the food. There have been many inspiring success stories where nutritious menus have been created only to see school participation taper off once the initial buzz died down. So the question remains, how do we actually get kids to eat the foods that are good for them once we’ve figured out how to get it on their plates?

Most kids don’t choose to eat foods based on how healthy they are but for far more irrational reasons such as aesthetics, peer pressure, what they’re used to eating and most of all – how that food makes them feel when they eat it. The challenge is trying to change the eating habits of young people whose palettes are still developing and who may have to try a food an average of ten times before accepting it. Since we have little to no control over what happens in the home, we have to focus on forming these positive attachments to food at school. In other words, our job is to get kids to fall in love with good food.

I knew I couldn’t solve all of our problems – failing or missing equipment, under-trained labor, and an underfunded food program – overnight but what we did have was the beginnings of an amazing food education program with an organic school garden and seasonal cooking classes called Edible Schoolyard NOLA. It was the first sanctioned replication of the original program started by Chef and Food Activist, Alice Waters in Berkeley, CA. This program set out to prove that Alice’s idea for improving childhood nutrition could work outside the glorious Garden of Eden on the west coast, that it could even transform students who are mostly all minorities, living below the poverty line, academically 2-3 years behind grade level, and struggling to exist in a broken city trying to put itself together after horrific devastation. And it did.

Our students helped transform the schoolyard from what looked like prison grounds to a thriving organic garden. In the ESY teaching kitchen, we turned tender lettuces, broccoli, kale, mustard greens, and peppers from the garden into all sorts of new and delicious recipes-cooked, served, and eaten by students. We ditched the cans, the refined carbs and the flavored milk. We’ve also switched from Styrofoam trays and plastic sporks to real plates and silverware and compost all of our scraps to feed our garden. We created a build-your-own salad bar class complete with homemade salad dressings. The feedback was great; I couldn’t walk through the halls without a throng of students inquiring when their next cooking class was happening and what we would be cooking next. Was this the resistance to nutritious food I was told to expect?

My next task was recreating the environment in the cafeteria. Every day at lunch we started putting vases full of flowers from our garden and pitchers of water on each table. We posted the menu on a chalkboard each morning and created a Wellness Policy that stated that any outside non-nutritious foods were forbidden. We played classical music during meals, convinced school leaders to abolish silent lunches and lunch detention, encouraging them instead to start eating meals in the cafeteria at the tables with the students. We fought for longer meal times and more efficient mealtime scheduling. We identified student leaders to help with some of the daily tasks and brought in parent and community volunteers to help with the rest. The result: our cafeteria was transformed into the Green Café. Now when important visitors come to tour our school, they sit down to a meal with school leaders and students because we’re all proud of the environment we created and are eager to share it with others.

We’ve learned many lessons since we began five years ago and worked to reform the food at some other local FirstLine Schools. While every child deserves to eat a nutritious, well-prepared meal every day, we know you can’t just change the food. You have to change the kids-and more often the adults by transforming the entire culture of food around the school and the way that kids feel about the food that they are served. Every child at every school should have the opportunity to grow and cook food and watch the journey of food from seed to table.

Find out more about Alice Walters and the Chez Panisse Foundation here.

About the author: April Neujean is the Food and Nutrition Educator at Samuel J. Green Charter, a FirstLine School in New Orleans.

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