Not so long ago, it was common to encounter a gleaming wall of colorful vending machines in any high school cafeteria. A bevy of sodas, candy and junk food beckoned students.
What teenager with a dollar bill wouldn’t choose a bag of Cheetos and a bottle of Coke for their lunch instead of the blob of overcooked spaghetti and wilting salad they were serving in the lunch line?
Flash forward to 2010, when the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed in an effort to combat the high rate of childhood obesity wreaking havoc on children’s health. This landmark piece of legislation was the result of decades of hard work by parents, health professionals, advocates, members of Congress and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), who fought to update the nutrition standards for foods served through the National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs and to make school lunches not just more nutritious but also more appealing to students.
Many people have taken up the fight against childhood obesity, most famously First Lady Michelle Obama and British chef Jamie Oliver, but the road ahead of them is long. One out of every three American children is overweight or obese. Because more than 30 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act is a great place to begin building healthy eating habits in America’s children.
The USDA now requires that school lunches provide a third of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein, calcium, iron, vitamin A and vitamin C, as well as a third of the calories needed by growing children, based on the appropriate age and grade group. School breakfasts must provide a quarter of the RDA for those same five nutrients and a quarter of the necessary calories appropriate for the age and grade group.
As a result of this legislation, updated nutrition standards for school meals will be phased in over the next few years. These new standards include more fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, availability of low-fat milk and sensible limits on calories, unhealthy fats and salt.
In St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS), all school menus now meet or exceed the new USDA standards. All grain-based items, such as buns and breads, are whole grain, and all menu items are trans-fat free. Many items are also locally sourced, according to Angie Gaszak, a nutrition specialist at St. Paul Public Schools.
“We currently have many items on our menu that are locally sourced like roasted carrots, herb roasted potatoes, baked beans, cabbage for our coleslaw, green beans and corn on the cob,” Gaszak explained. “Year round, we are able to procure our fresh chicken drumsticks from Gold’n Plump in Cold Spring, our ground turkey for our turkey sloppy Joes from Ferndale Market in Cannon Falls, and our organic golden ground flaxseed for our Smart Rounds are from Askegaard Organic Farm in Moorhead.”
Additionally, many vegetarian items are offered as often as possible, and that includes whole-grain grilled cheese sandwiches and veggie pizza with onions and green peppers. Students are also encouraged to build their own unlimited salad from a variety of vegetables, fruits and legumes offered at the Choice Bar at each school.
Anna Lovat, a second-grader at Chelsea Heights Elementary School, appreciates the accessibility to more veggies. “Now that they have more vegetables at lunch, there is less fat, which is good,” she explained. “And if you want to be more of a vegetarian, you don’t have to have meat.”
Students aren’t the only ones enjoying the new-and-improved nutrition program at SPPS. Susan Watson, a teacher assistant at Ramsey Middle School, is thrilled with the healthier choices available to staff.
“As a middle-school staff member, I have found the school lunches to be a great option,” Watson said. “The fresh fruit and multiple vegetable options provide a healthy and tasty lunch. And as a mom, I know my son might not like everything on the menu, but at least there are healthy options for him to try.”
SPPS is also focused on offering many ethnically diverse food menu items such as Hmong beef fried rice, chicken suqaar and vegetable rice, teriyaki chicken and edamame, and Mexican pinto beans and rice. These fun entrees were developed in partnership with the community in an effort to enrich the children’s culinary experience at the schools.
“Our recipes come from a variety of sources: students, families, the community, even restaurants,” Gaszak said. “Our Thai sweet and sour chicken dish was adapted from a recipe given to us by Anna Fieser at True Thai restaurant [in Minneapolis]. Our Somali dish, chicken suqaar, was given to us by a member of the Somali community. We had to make some slight changes in terms of production and scaling it up to feed as many children as we do—roughly 30,000 lunch servings on a typical day—but we took the recipe back to our Somali families at a parent advisory council meeting for the final seal of approval for authenticity and taste. We try to incorporate dishes onto our menu that are representative of the diverse cultures embodied in our district and also to give all of our students the opportunity to try varied, worldly cuisine.”
The district’s hope is that the healthy and diverse eating habits the children develop at school will encourage them to continue to make similar choices in other environments, such as at home and when venturing out to eat with their families.
The SPPS nutrition program is one of the first in Minnesota to launch its own mobile menu app. The app, called School Lunch, is free to download for the iPhone or Android. The app can be found on SPPS’s interactive website, spps.nutrislice.com. Choose a school and menu (lunch or breakfast) and the links to the apps will appear on the right hand side.
The app allows students, families and district employees to see their school’s menus as well as menu item descriptions and pictures, nutritional information, ingredient lists and potential allergens all in one place.
So whatever happened to those junk-filled vending machines that seemed so prevalent just a few years ago? While some are still present in St. Paul schools, only four nonwater vending machines are accessible to high school students in the district and even then only after school. The district is currently assisting these schools in reviewing the contents to ensure that they meet USDA guidelines.
We all know the old adage, “You can lead a child to the Szechuan chicken, but you can’t make her eat it.” So are St. Paul’s kids giving the new menus a big thumbs up? Gaszak believes they are.
“The kitchen supervisors at all of our sites give us great feedback on what the kids are taking and what they are saying about school breakfast and lunch,” she said. “Less food is ending up in the food recycling program buckets of leftovers and scraps that go to local farmers for animal feed, and that is very telling of the success and popularity of a dish.”
Admittedly, there is some trial and error involved in choosing menu items that kids will appreciate. “Last year we had what we warmly embraced as a ‘flop’ when we tried a new dish called coconut chicken,” Gaszak said. “Because of the turmeric in the recipe, the dish had a golden color, which apparently was too unfamiliar and unattractive to many of our students. Needless to say, this dish did not go over well and was pulled from the menu, but we learn from our mistakes as well as, if not better than, our successes.”
Alex Lodner lives and writes in Como Park.