There is a food fight in our schools, parents. Not in the “throw mashed potatoes across the room” way; it’s the lack of nutrition in school breakfasts and lunches that is causing parents across the nation to go to battle.
There has been change for the good. With recent events like celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s television series (Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution) and First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiatives against childhood obesity, awareness is turning into action. It’s critical for us to look at what our children are eating—and how it is affecting them.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that, since 1980, childhood obesity has nearly tripled, bringing the estimate to nearly 17 percent of all children in the U.S. This is a staggering statistic, as obesity brings many negative health consequences including heart disease, diabetes, cancers and high blood pressure. Aside from these health impacts, making unhealthy food choices deprives the brain of necessary nutrition needed to effectively function during a school day. Parents, educators and community members agree that we should be doing everything we can to set our kids up for educational success.
Two Angry Moms
Completely dissatisfied with their school cafeterias, moms Amy Kalafa and Susan Rubin embarked on their own food fight to bring about change. Kalafa did so by producing the movie, Two Angry Moms, in which Rubin becomes proactive in bringing about change in the cafeteria. An eye-opening look into what it is our children are actually eating (processed, high-sugar, high-fat foods) on a daily basis, the movie not only presents the problems but looks for solutions, such as community support and school gardens. The movie serves as a resource for parents who are frustrated with the lack of nutrition in school food, and it outlines an action plan to enable parents to take initiative.
So what are local public school districts doing to win this food fight? Here is the “skinny” on local districts’ school food policies:
Edmond Public Schools
Assistant Superintendent Bret Towne says, “Our goal is to exceed required state and federal standards. We’d like to increase our scratch cooking to account for 80 percent of items served in cafeterias.” Focusing on lowering the amount of sodium found in frozen foods, they strive to serve more fresh items and have been doing so by preparing items such as homemade pizza. Child Nutrition Supervisor Shelly Fox explains, “It’s important to get kids to understand why it’s important to make healthy choices and eat healthy foods.” Edmond has also found success in a Nutrition Advisory Committee that includes both parents and administrators working together to improve the food service as a whole.
Oklahoma City Public Schools
“We have had overwhelming feedback from our Fresh Fruits and Vegetables Program,” said Director of Child Nutrition Services, Steve Gallagher, referring to a grant that allowed students in 52 elementary schools to have a daily afternoon break to enjoy fresh fruits and veggies. Gallagher said that the district elected to provide funding for the elementary schools not covered in the grant to participate in the program. “They [the students] look forward to it, and the teachers have given positive feedback as well.” “Child Nutrition Services is partnering with a local group in a pilot program at Taft Middle School to create a facility that will provide exclusively scratch cooking with a ‘green’ focus,” said Gallagher. “We fully support this effort and are interfacing with other districts that have a similar desire to reduce pre-made and processed menu items wherever possible.” This effort is expected to be used as a template for similar programs in the other district schools. Oklahoma City also has a Wellness Committee which focuses on nutrition and meal planning with administrative and parental input.
Mid–Del City Public Schools
The Mid-Del district has become part of Michelle Obama’s Healthier US School Challenge to combat childhood obesity. Nutrition Education Specialist Macey Fitzgerald explains that they involve parents in meal planning by bringing sample foods to PTA meetings and asking for feedback. Fitzgerald believes the district has the responsibility to offer nutritional food that the students will eat. One challenge the district faces in providing healthier meals is budgetary. Child Nutrition is a revenue stream, and in many cases, healthy food is more expensive. Last year, the district’s bond issue did not pass, and the district is struggling. However, Mid-Del has organized a Wellness Committee and the district is considering offering incentives to students who make healthy choices. A step in the right direction, Mid-Del has removed all deep fryers from its schools.
Moore Public Schools
Moore schools have already been making subtle changes to their menus. Efforts include food substitutions that aren’t obvious to kids, such as spaghetti sauce made with lean turkey meat and pizzas cooked with low fat cheese and whole grain wheat. Fresh asparagus has been a recent addition, and Pam Hart, Director of Child Nutrition said, “We’ve had a mixed reaction from parents about the asparagus, but we have had parents calling saying that their children are now asking for it at home.” The district does serve fresh fruits and vegetables daily and has plans to introduce summer squash to the students next year. Moore remains open-minded about their food offerings and likes to hear parent suggestions and feedback from taste tests.
Putnam City Public Schools
Putnam City has worked to change the daily offerings to meet calorie, sodium and fat requirements including changes such as replacing all chips with baked or reduced-fat varieties. Putnam City is also part of the Healthier US School Challenge, encouraging schools to offer healthier menu items (such as grains and low fat milk) and to teach nutrition in the classrooms. The district’s Wellness Committee discusses ways to improve health within the district. Dietician Kerri Whitley says, “The [district’s] daily fruit and vegetable consumption is incredible.” She feels they are “ahead of the game and on board with regulations.” All Putnam City Schools have an “offering bar” that offers six different fruits and vegetables, and all schools have had success with this approach.
Norman Public Schools
Assistant Superintendent Roger Brown says their district has partnered with Sodexo (a food company with healthy alternatives) to improve nutrition. Participants of the “Be Smart, Eat Smart, Live Smart” program, their approach is to meet the needs of both students (convenience and choice) and parents (nutritious meals). They offer a variety of healthy options in all schools, including a salad/fruit and vegetable bar. The district is considering working with Sodexo to expand into classrooms to teach nutrition education. Norman’s Citizen Advisory Council meets regularly to discuss topics regarding the school cafeterias, and has been given opportunities to sample school foods and be proactive in the decision-making process.
What Can I Do?
The Two Angry Moms action plan for better food in schools in your district:
- Host a screening of Two Angry Moms. With this first step you will meet, and join forces with, other like-minded people who recognize that our kids do better and feel better in a healthy school food environment.
- Sign and circulate the “Two to Two Million” Angry Moms Pledge to reach a national tipping point where healthy and delicious school food becomes the norm. Visit www.angrymoms.org to find the pledge.
- Have lunch with your child in the school cafeteria. Understand the strengths and weaknesses of your school’s lunch program by experiencing the food your kids are taking in at school every day. Ask to see ingredient lists for all the food on the menu.
- Join a committee or coalition. Get involved with the nutrition committee in your school or a wellness committee in your district. Write or update a District Wellness Policy that specifies your needs. For more support, become a member of www.angrymoms.groupsite.com. Your wellness committee should:
- Survey your district. Find out how many other parents, students, teachers and staff share your concerns about school food. A community-wide survey raises awareness and builds numbers.
- Read your contracts. Is your school self-operated or run by a food service management company? Read all the contracts and write a wellness policy that specifies your needs.
- Make sure the contracts reflect the policy. Ensure the lunch staff has training and equipment.
- Hold fundraisers or seek grant funds to get the new program started.
- Market your new program: Some kids are afraid of fresh food! So when positive changes are made in your district, work with sports teams and student leaders to help with “buy-in” from your entire community. Create and participate in school gardening and cooking classes that produce real food. Hold tastings, make it fun!
Julie Dill is a National Board Certified Teacher from Oklahoma City and mother of two.