Maggie Shafer Writes

Lessons From The Lunch Line

Maggie ShaferComment

Tiny hands hold plastic trays up to a window and point at pizza or nachos, green beans or fruit, chocolate or white milk while the child debates whether the shiny blue salad cart their parents fought so hard for is worth the ten step walk.

It’s a smart place to keep the Goldfish crackers.

Unlike the majority of the school day, the cafeteria is the place where the student calls the shots. Mom isn’t here to regulate and the lunch lady will serve whatever is asked for, regardless of the colorful food pyramid hanging overhead.

What’s chosen from the lunch line is up to them. But what they have to choose from and how that gets decided is a little more complicated.

When compared to most school food systems, Poudre School District is actually quite progressive. They’ve far exceeded national nutritional and quality guidelines, and made efforts to keep up with local and sustainable practices.

But like any good American business, they’re consumer driven, mostly reliant on children buying lunch to generate enough income to keep food on the tables. This is the priority before development in both the environmental and health arenas can be considered.

While the schools strive to meet federal regulations within budget guidelines, parent demands continue to grow, and with studies showing that childhood nutritional habits can set the course for life, some busy moms and dads have placed the responsibility for creating those habits on the shoulders of the school.

And as the number of diabetics (including children) in Colorado continues to grow—about 50 percent more cases diagnosed since 1994 according to Colorado Diabetes Prevention and Control Program—it’s clear that childhood nutrition is a pressing issue, and the school makes an easy target for blame.

Some have pointed fingers at the the food system itself and the meals offered. The system points to its empty pockets and back to its clients, the children in our community. Who, whether we like it or not, are still pointing at the pizza.

In the beginning, there was meatloaf

According to Marion Nestle in her book Food Politics, the first school lunch programs were created during the Great Depression. They served as a way to assist low-income families with school-age children and allowed the government to use excess agriculture from a price-support agreement with farmers.

Because chronic diseases associated with diet were not as prevalent, there were few rules regarding fat and sugar content, and often the foods served were those most affordable—salad bars were not in the picture.

The Federal School Lunch Program, implemented in 1946 by President Harry Truman, expanded and regulated what the schools had started in an effort to “safeguard the health and well-being of the Nation’s children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities and other food” through government assisted school meals.

The culture of the time considered a healthy, well-balanced lunch to be similar to what was served at home. A main course of meat sided by potatoes, bread with butter and a green vegetable, usually cooked. This was washed down with a glass a milk and often followed by a chocolate chip cookie or other “homestyle” dessert.

This may sound gluttonous by today’s lunch standards, but portions were smaller and the children were typically more active. Additionally, because school lunch was quite possibly the only meal a child was getting that day, caloric content wasn’t considered an issue.

In an effort to offset the costs the school lunch program created, many schools began allowing vendors into cafeterias in the 60s, selling typical fast food to students spending mom and dad’s money. When dependent on vendors, cafeterias save on the cost of food service equipment and employees.

And in the food fight between mystery meat and Ronald McDonald, french fries win every time.

The school lunch program has become an industrial giant, costing $9.8 billion in fiscal year 2009 and serving 5,274.5 million lunches in 2010, according to the USDA. No longer just intended for those living in poverty, this system has become a convenience that many parents depend on—Fort Collins is no exception.

As with any business this size, economic, environmental and health issues are complex. Due to this area’s progressive movements in food, parent demands have changed and their standards risen. Many are calling for healthier, seasonal, locally produced foods that meet both allergy and diet restrictions, including vegan and vegetarian options. Despite the significant movements towards these goals in recent years, no one would claim the school’s work is done.

Before the community can fix what’s broken, however, it must understand the tools it’s working with and who’s footing the bill.

Who stole the lunch money?

When nutritionist Craig Schneider was hired to direct the PSD Department of Child Nutrition three years ago, he had his work cut out for him—and microwaved.

The entree meals were made/heated up in the morning at a central warehouse to be shipped and stored until lunch hour, where the students would choose between them or french fries and pizza from their favorite fast food chain. Follow it all up with a vending machine dessert boasting a two-year expiration period and lunch is served.

Since Schneider started, the department has come a long way. Under his leadership, every meal is now being prepared on site, and the number of

local farm purchases, fresh fruits, veggies and whole grains served has greatly increased. A colorful salad bar with seasonal produce cut fresh every day can be found in each cafeteria, and perhaps best of all, they’ve done away with the fast food vendors.

“We’re changing the stigma of what school lunch is,” said Schneider. “The kids have to like it, but it also has to be healthy.”

Along with these changes have come greater employee training standards and parent participation, including online payment plans, accessible menus, nutrition facts and efficient service.

But it’s not all carrot sticks and cucumbers.

The 175 member department must constantly weigh costs with quality. As a self-supported entity, their budget is based on student consumption—they must sell lunches to pay the bills.

Suppose that nachos are their biggest sellers. If the department takes them away, fewer students buy lunch. When the students don’t buy lunch, the department doesn’t get paid. When the department doesn’t get paid, the food quality drops. A vicious, malnutritious cycle.

This has led to many menu compromises. For instance, rather than get rid of the ever-popular hot dog, the department has substituted turkey dogs with whole wheat buns. Pizza, their most popular item, is now made with a wheat crust and low fat cheese.

Tyson is currently working on selling a whole wheat breaded chicken nugget to PSD, but as of right now, it hasn’t passed the official “taste test.”

“The kids hated the whole wheat nuggets,” said Schneider. “I won’t buy a product that my customers won’t eat.”

And then there was the chocolate milk battle. Their most popular item, Schneider knew that getting rid of it would cost them. Rather than take it away completely, they switched to a fat free version with no high fructose corn syrup—what he considers a happy medium for health and budget concerns.

With the district serving over 15,000 meals daily, each change takes significant effort from vendors, manufacturers, schools and perhaps most importantly, the students themselves.

“It’s all a balance,” Schneider said. “We’re trying to constantly improve but we can’t change everything overnight. I’m not going to say we’re perfect, but I’d challenge you to find a better system in Colorado.”

Classroom to cafeteria

District wellness coordinator Nicole Turner-Ravana would agree with Schneider that the changes made in the cafeteria are significant. But if the changes stop there, the impact will be disappointing.

Weaving healthy and sustainable living practices into all aspects of the school day is one of her main goals as the wellness coordinator, working with teams at every school to implement nutrition, physical fitness and community health practices.

“The children are more engaged when they’re healthier,” she said. “Learning how to eat healthy at school creates a culture of how to live healthy in general.”

Turner-Ravana works closely with the Department of Child Nutrition to monitor foods being offered throughout the school day, not just at lunchtime. She’s seen the relationships between the schools and the department flourish, as well as increased parent participation. For Turner-Ravana, it’s not just about where they are, it’s about the direction they are headed in.

They’ve seen soda taken out of vending machines, more physical activity incorporated throughout the day, a larger number of students purchasing breakfast and more fresh food available before, during and after school.

“Making small changes now can turn into something bigger in the long run,” she said. “When you have a lifelong philosophy of healthy living infused into kids, they desire it. They see that this is what they want to be like, not avoid.”

When mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy

Those that have been in the system several years would agree that schools in PSD have made positive changes. It’s the pace of the changes that’s the problem.

Alisa Shargorodsky, a mother of two in the district, first became concerned after joining her children for lunch at Cache La Poudre Elementary School, where breadsticks “soaked in oil” were being served, and she saw nothing that looked fresh or appetizing being offered.

Shargorodsky showed up with “her fist in the air” at the next district wellness meeting, but left unsure who to wave it at.

“Craig is very progressive,” she said of Schneider. “He’s actually making efforts. These schools need money from exterior sources if we want to see a change.”

Shargorodsky has written a proposal on incorporating more local foods into the school system and is still fighting to get Morning Fresh Dairy milk dispensers in the cafeterias. Currently, however, the budget won’t allow for many of these drastic changes.

“It’s not that they don’t want to make changes,” she said. “They can’t.”

In the 17 years that resident Carolyn Beiser’s two children have been in PSD she could probably count the number of times they’ve purchased lunch from the school on one hand.

Although the menu boasts of healthy choices, Beiser described their efforts as minuscule, lacking balance and quality. After seeing “waffles with a side of Texas toast” offered as one day’s meal, Beiser has chosen to brown bag it the majority of her children’s school career.

“Even though brown bag lunches become repetitive after awhile, kids

learn to eat a balanced diet, and train their bodies to prefer the taste of healthy ingredients,” said Beiser. “They begin to notice that they don’t feel as good after eating foods with a lot of fillers or corn syrup, for example.”

Chef Ann Cooper, known as the renegade lunch lady, says that change is possible, but it’ll cost you.

Currently working on Boulder’s lunch system, Cooper said that before significant changes can be made, a feasibility study must be done and the readiness of the kids, community and facilities considered. When it comes down to it, eating better does cost more—and that must be reflected in the price of the meal.

“How can it not be worth it?” she said. “What’s more important, your child’s health or the money? Our kids are dying because we’re killing them with the foods we give them. But it absolutely can change.”

Schneider agrees that the health of the child is what’s most important, but with 20,000 families in the district, there are multiple ideas of what it means to be healthy.

“I can’t just take away pizza and start serving tofu everyday,” he said. “We’d lose our customers. We’re always trying to instill good habits and introduce new foods, but we have to operate like a business.”

Growth from the ground up

Karen Mcmanus, known fondly by students in Greeley School District as Farmer Karen, has been selling produce to local schools since 2007. As a farmer and mother, she’s seen the importance of educating and connecting children with their food, and fostering relationships between schools and local farms.

Providing fresh, locally grown produce to schools, she said, addresses childhood obesity issues, keeps money within the community, gives farmers the chance to create new markets and offers educational opportunities pertaining to where food comes from and how it’s grown.

The interest she’s seen by PSD is encouraging.

“There is a great deal of parent and staff support for farm to school, and the Poudre School District listens to their parents and staff,” Mcmanus said. “They are well regarded as offering Fort Collins children a quality education and high standards, and leaving this at the lunch room door is unacceptable.”

Both Mcmanus and Schneider agree that relying completely on local produce is currently unrealistic for a district the size of Poudre, but making the connections to begin the process is crucial.

At the recent Connecting Local Farms and Schools conference, hosted by Real Food Colorado, Slow Food Denver and CSU Extension, Colorado school district and community leaders had an opportunity to discuss methods and means with growers, and learn from the districts that have made the biggest steps in this area. The conference was attended by a representative from Poudre.

Jeremy West, director of Nutritional Services for Greeley-Evans District 6, has made huge strides in favoring local produce. Three years ago the district worked with one local farm, and purchased one or two crops. Last year, they purchased 16 and worked with several local farms.

“A lot of people like to blame the schools for childhood obesity,” he said, “but I don’t think that’s fair. Sure we’re part of the problem, but we can be a huge part of the solution.”

Planting seeds of hope

While the food fight rages on, many community members have chosen to get their own hands dirty. Quite literally.

The Growing Project’s Chad Shavor is currently building gardens in two local schools, a mission that he sees as the beginning of a new understanding of food in the Fort Collins education system.

The gardens will be used as outdoor classrooms and laboratories, where students can discover the growing process hands-on along with parent and community volunteers.

Eventually, he wants to work with teachers to incorporate gardening into many subjects, utilizing the labs as real life examples of nutrition, ecology and biology.

“Gardening allows us to slow down, learn patience, nutrition, about the community and about what’s good for our bodies,” Shavor said. “Knowing where our food comes from can make us a better global system.”

Getting lunch out of the box

Everyone can agree that the school lunch debate can no longer exist in a vacuum. It’s a complex web of corresponding factors involving farms, families, the district and the money it receives.

The current movement is towards a more sustainable, holistic and healthy system that incorporates education and community, and places greater importance on what the children in our community are fueling their bodies with.

But what the future will look like, however, will depend on who gets involved. Parent and community participation and financial sacrifice will be required to continue on the path towards the healthy food system we’ve dreamt of and proposed. And the momentum is now.

The fingers of blame need to stop pointing at people and start pointing to the ground.

Because only when the full system is acknowledged and understood will the children realize that without the dirt, we wouldn’t have the pizza in the first place.