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Meet The 8 Unsung Heroes Of School Food

Sharpen your pencils: This is how America’s next generation is moving towards healthier, more informed eating

It’s that time of year when we say goodbye to summer and send kids (or ourselves) packing, off to another year of school. For many students, this change of pace means a dramatic shift in diet as they return to haggard schedules and rushed mealtimes, from early morning to late afternoon, with the majority of meals eaten at school.

According to Let’s Move, a campaign started in 2010 by Michelle Obama to combat childhood obesity, over 30 million students are fed through the National School Lunch Program, and about half get breakfast from the School Breakfast Program. The meals, plus an afternoon snack, are served in more than 100,000 institutions, both public and nonprofit private schools.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]You can’t just replace chicken nuggets with brussels sprouts and expect everything to go smoothly.[/quote]

Here’s how it works: schools get reimbursed by the government for offering free and discounted meals to lower-income kids. Some schools have made all of the meals free in order to camouflage the inequality between students who qualify and those who would pay full price. Remember the Jamie Oliver horror stories from Huntington, Virginia, the nation’s leader in obesity, where school children couldn’t identify tomatoes and lived off of Mountain Dew?

The new regulations have aimed to tackle two of those problems, reducing obesity and making cafeteria food healthier, or at least recognizable—but they have failed in a big way to teach kids how to taste and how to cook. Five years after the program launched, the New York Times reported that schools had lost money and the kids were tossing out their lunches; because you can’t just replace chicken nuggets with brussels sprouts and expect everything to go smoothly.

Today’s school kids are caught between a dying era of fast food and a new vision of Farm-to-Cafeteria eating becoming the norm. The research shows what we know is true: kids learn best by example, and they will eat healthier when their education engages them with where food comes from and how their bodies use it. In the uphill struggle of salad bars over happy meals, we found true heroes of the classroom and the garden, who show kids how to be healthy from the inside out.

Suzy Amis Cameron

An environmental activist and mother of five, Suzy Amis Cameron founded MUSE School CA in 2006 with her sister and her husband, film director James Cameron. The school is nestled in the hills of Calabasas, California and and has collected nearly as many awards as it has solar panels, powering 90 percent of its energy usage with the sun.

The official recognition honors the school’s use of green technology, sustainability, and integration of eco-conscious living into everything from the school curriculum to its infrastructure. Their kitchen is 100% plant-based and uses lunchtime to promote eating One Meal A Day for the Planet, while the school garden engages its 140 students with the nearby community through sales of its surplus produce to local chefs through the Seed-to-Table program.

[quote position="full" is_quote="false"]Remember the Jamie Oliver horror stories where school children couldn’t identify tomatoes and lived off of Mountain Dew? [/quote]

P.S. 244

The nation’s first vegetarian public school is in an unlikely location: Flushing, Queens, the New York borough that prides itself on being home to the most culturally diverse population in the world.

The school dishes up vegetarian fare to a large, diverse, and very young student body: 428 Pre-K through 3rd grade students with mostly Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern backgrounds were the motivation to change the menu.

Because so many of the students already brought vegetarian lunches with them from home, the shift to meatless meals came with few grumbles. But the few who were still on the fence with all of the vegetables weren’t the kids—they were the parents.

“The vast majority of parents are on board,” Principal Robert Groff explains. “Some are in the mindset of, ‘My kid will only eat those certain things,’ but when kids see their friends eating things, when they’re immersed in it, they’ll try it.”

Sometimes, peer pressure can be a good thing.

Green Bronx Machine

If anyone believes in the adaptability of kids and their eagerness to try new things, it’s founder, educator, and volunteer Stephen Ritz. He’s a tall, lanky man with the energy of a sixteen-year-old who shows kids in the Bronx how to grow their own food in an aim to reduce food insecurity and child poverty through the Green Bronx Machine.

Ritz’s project began as an alternative after-school program in a community with some of New York’s highest rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, unemployment, and food insecurity. Now, the indoor urban farm has become a non-profit with a fully-developed K-12 curriculum that incorporates food and nutrition alongside a standard education.

With the help of his students and volunteers, Ritz transformed a 100-year-old building in the South Bronx into what is now the National Health, Wellness and Biodiversity Center at P.S. 55. There, he teaches students how to garden using urban agriculture and vertical farming methods, in addition to imparting valuable techniques and hard skills in the fields of agriculture, culinary arts, and science.

It’s also one of few school garden programs that targets economically disadvantaged populations—still very much underserved by these kinds of initiatives.

Healthy Schools Campaign

This non-profit based in Chicago began as a local project in 2002 to improve nutrition and food access for low-income Chicago students. It grew into a national organization that uses policy initiatives and community-building to improve food access. Individual programs target specific needs within the community, like encouraging increased physical activity; bringing together parents, teachers, and community leaders to resolve issues; and turning Chicago schoolyards into green spaces where plants can grow.

It also hosts a competition called Cooking Up Change as way for student chefs to create sustainable, healthy recipes—these future Top Chef Juniors can take their recipes all the way up to compete on a national level.

Cook for America

Some organizations work hard to undo years of unhealthy eating and fast food cravings for kids. Then there are those who teach the people cooking for our children how to prepare healthy food they can be proud of.

Cook for America’s program trains and educates food service workers in basic culinary skills, sanitation and hygiene laws, and meal plan budgeting. It also prepares school cooks to conduct themselves professionally and confidently in a commercial kitchen, and to utilize real food and fresh ingredients instead of cheap, industrialized, and packaged food—all serious habits that greatly benefit school kitchens and the kids they feed.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]Kids are more engaged in real world, hands-on learning, particularly at the elementary school level.[/quote]

REAL School Gardens

By partnering with schools in low-income neighborhoods, REAL School Gardens helps each partner school build custom learning gardens and trains their teachers in gardening with students. School children are able to take part in designing the gardens by competing for best design idea.

The curriculum’s hands-on experience has shown great, data-driven results in the classroom: Since its inception, partner schools and their 53,000 students have seen test scores increase by 15 percent, and 94 percent of teachers said that student engagement has increased. Just the garden’s presence proves beneficial to students: almost 60 percent of teachers said they used the garden as educational space to conduct their classes, bringing kids out of the classroom and into nature.

Research supports the hypothesis that exposure to gardens can indeed cause behavioral change: one study found that contact with a school garden had a positive impact on students’ academic success and dietary health.

"The guiding principle is that if we can get kids more engaged with learning, there would be a better foundation for academic success later on," CEO Jeanne McCarty told CNN last September. "Kids are more engaged in real world, hands-on learning, particularly at the elementary school level.”

NY Coalition for Healthy School Food

This thriving initiative works primarily as a resource hub for public schools who want to shift to plant-based cafeterias. Its powerhouse advisory board includes some of the leaders of the school food movement: Kate Adamick from Cook for America, Ann Cooper of the Chef Ann Foundation, and T. Colin Campbell of Forks Over Knives are among the organization’s guides.

Shifting students’ perception of taste can be tough, but the Coalition’s success stories include a vegetable-averse kid growing to love beets like candy, and a school birthday party where students ditched cupcakes in favor of raw grapes and broccoli (yes, really).

Edible Schoolyard

Nothing can be said about the need for better food in public schools without including the work of Alice Waters, the godmother of the modern organic, local food movement. Waters has been teaching students for the last 20 years, from the first Edible Schoolyard at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California to a national network of educators, volunteers, and students all across the world. Though it was revolutionary at its start, Waters’ initial vision of a global, edible curriculum doesn’t seem like such a wild-haired idea now.

One thing’s for sure: kids want to eat better and live healthy lives. It’s up to us to give them the tools they need, and to have faith that, in time, they will love carrots, beets, arugula, and even brussels sprouts, as much as we do—and maybe even more.

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