School nutrition is an increasingly important issue facing our children — here’s the reality and a vision for change
School nutrition has taken a turn, albeit a slow turn, for the better over the course of the last four years. With the signing of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA), students have seen an increase in the amount of real food being served in schools and a decrease in junk food. While on the surface this change seems great, it is also very challenging for school nutrition programs with tight budgets to serve students increased servings of fresh fruits and vegetables and whole-grain foods. REAL food costs more money and with only a $.06 increase in funding signed into law with the HHFKA, this has become troublesome for many schools districts.
As a former Chef and Executive Director of School Nutrition Programs in Connecticut, I would like to see less red tape and bureaucracy in school nutrition programs and an increase in funding toward recruiting experienced culinary professionals and registered dietitians to lead these programs to a healthy future. No two school nutrition programs are alike.
There are school districts with a population of students from households who can afford to shop at health food stores and buy organic, but I would say the majority of the school nutrition programs throughout the country feed children from households that are food-insecure.
School nutrition programs, for some, provide the only nutrition of the day for these children. By employing a team of chefs and RDs, along with a School Nutrition Director to feed these kids REAL food, we can overcome some big hunger barriers and see meaningful results in the classrooms and overall long-term health costs.
The overarching goal of the HHFKA is to provide students with healthier foods in schools, incorporate nutrition education into curriculums, and increase access to food for all students through the Community Eligibility Program. This program is designed to reduce paperwork and provide free meals to all children in school districts with a large population of students in high-poverty areas. While this is a step in the right direction, there is always room for increased improvement: elevate food quality, reduce paperwork, and provide more nutrition education.
In many ways the system is antiquated, with roots that stem back to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) that was signed into law by President Harry S. Truman in 1945, and that is overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Originally designed to bulk up boys to serve in the military, the program hasn’t kept up with our current food reality.
Today, feeding kids in schools involves as much and perhaps even more paperwork than is required to educate them.
The problem is that while the paperwork is mounting, the funding is not. It’s time for a shake-up, some fresh thinking, innovative ideas, and new ways of approaching our overall food system.
While not dismissing the realities of budgets and other practical considerations when it comes to providing a higher quality of fresh fruits and vegetables, there are many great ways to increase flavor and nutrition in the foods that schools (and parents) serve to kids. In 2012, while a chef and School Nutrition Director, I attended a School Nutrition Association Conference and came face to face with one of those great ideas – vegetable purees. In fact, I was so excited by the prospects of this product that in 2014 I decided to leave my job and accept a position as the VP of Brand Development for Hooray Puree, an innovative company dedicated to a plant-pick-puree-package philosophy. Non-GMO vegetables are picked at peak freshness, cooked for less then three minutes, pureed, and packaged in BPA-free pouches. From the moment I first came in contact with this company, my head was spinning with recipe ideas and the bigger picture – making nutrition available to the masses.
There’s only one issue: The USDA does not currently recognize a vegetable unless it is visible. Hmmm. I’m not quite sure how those highly processed and breaded “chicken nuggets” that do not resemble a piece of chicken are making the cut. Clearly, nothing trumps the value of a fresh vegetable or salad; however, incorporating healthy purees into recipes to enhance nutritional content is a no-brainer. What do we risk – developing palates for nutritious consumption? What’s additionally exciting is that the Hooray Puree products are shelf-stable for two years, making them economically viable and available to organizations and institutions. We handle the entire process from farm to fork. We not only encourage healthy food choices, we inspire healthy change – for young adults to enter the arena of agriculture research and innovative thinking.
With enhanced nutrition education, we can show this generation of kids how to shop for healthy foods at the grocery store, how to cook and prepare healthy meals and snacks, and how to reap the benefits of overall healthy living. By empowering our kids to make the changes themselves, we are teaching them where their food comes from and what to do with it when they have it in their hands. We inspire them to think outside of the box.
Kids who get their hands dirty in the garden will eat what they sow and harvest, simply out of curiosity.
If this curiosity leads to kids sampling foods they may have never eaten before, then we are all in for a very cool future.
Bottom line – we need leaders. We need office staff and man/womanpower to staff our school nutrition programs. We need policy modifications at the federal level to recognize these developments and we need funding allocated to incorporate healthy food and education into programming. As parents (I am a dad to four amazing children), we can work with our school districts to make a difference: join the wellness committee, talk to the principal about reading food-related books to the students, and ask teachers for time to do a healthy cooking demo. Let’s put to use the strengths we all possess and share with others to make a difference in the life of a child. Together we can end childhood hunger, decrease childhood obesity and disease, increase awareness, and most importantly, live as a society knowing that we are a TEAM: Together Everyone Achieves More.