Schools Savoring the Effects of Healthier Food

It was the underappreciated radish’s turn to be vegetable of the month at the Broward County public schools, and Darlene Moppert proudly tells the story of a teacher calling her to pass on a delicious nugget of information.

“One of the activities was for students to describe their feelings when they ate the radish,” recalls the program manager of nutrition education and training at the approximately 230 Broward County, Fla., schools (in the Ft. Lauderdale area). “One first-grader said it was like ants dancing on her tongue. We try to do things to make fruits and vegetables seem fun.”

Moppert is among a growing crowd mixing up school food choices to get students to eat healthier. It’s happening not just through school menus and education but also by creating farm-to-school food programs through which local schools purchase the harvests of local farmers.

“Farm-to-school means three things,” explains Anupama Joshi, executive director and co-founder of the National Farm to School Network in Cary, N.C. “It means local and regional food procurement in food cafeterias. It also means gardening activities in school, and third, it’s food and farming education in the classroom. The trifecta of these elements is important in changing the health of children and providing benefits to farmers.”

Efforts have begun to bear fruit. “Overall in the nation, figures show that childhood obesity, which has continued to climb over a 20-year period, is now leveling off,” notes Moppert; she’s referring to studies, including one from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showing that obesity has stabilized at about 17 percent for 2- to 19-year-olds. “We still have a way to go to get it to be declining. But that’s a more positive trend.”

It’s not just kids who reap the rewards. The effects are rippling throughout communities, especially from farm-to-school programs. “Schools are the hubs, and kids take information from school into the community,” contends Joshi. “Farmers are benefiting from these initiatives as well. And communities benefit because there’s a multiplier effect. Each dollar invested in farm-to-school programs creates an additional $2.16 of local economic activity. For every job created by school districts purchasing local foods, an additional 1.67 jobs are created.”

The best news? These programs are just getting cooking. Proponents expect an even bigger bounty when more schools get a taste of the benefits.

Lunch program grows up

Today’s healthier school menus have been brewing for a long time. The story begins with a federal mandate way back in 1946. “The federal government signed into law the National School Lunch Act in part as a national defense program because when the Americans went into World War II, a lot of young men were rejected for service because of nutritional deficiencies,” explains Moppert. “Then when we won, we began producing more food than we needed as a nation. The national school lunch program made lunch available to students based on need.”

The program has been updated in the decades since, including in 2004, when it required each school district to have a wellness policy and committee to address issues resulting from childhood obesity. “It was due to a recognition that children might not have the same life expectancy as their parents,” says Moppert.

Broward schools — where last year, 64 percent of students were eligible for free or reduced-price meals — have jumped in. “We’ve been in the forefront of developing healthy lunches,” says Moppert. “In the 1990s, the school system eliminated fryers and started with salad bars to get kids to eat more salads. But salad bars have some challenges, especially in the lower grades. We realized kids did better with grab-and-go salads. In 2006 and 2007, we began offering more of those. One might be a chef ’s salad with the meat of the day. Another might be a vegan salad with legumes like kidney or navy beans and seed kernels. Our salad numbers went up tremendously.”

Grant grows community

Another community transforming school food is Burke County, about 30 miles south of Augusta, Ga., largely through the “fruit and vegetable grant.”

That’s the shorthand name used by Donna S. Martin, director of the schools’ nutrition program, for the federal program launched in 2002 as a pilot program in four states and the Zuni, N.M., tribal organization. Its goal: To determine best practices for increasing fresh fruit and vegetable consumption in schools. In 2008, the program became permanent nationwide.

Martin says the program is one of the best she has. For five years, she’s used it to improve her schools’ food and to shape lives in her community. “We’re trying to teach children how to eat healthy in the hopes they’ll go home and teach their family how to eat healthy,” she says. “We have a high predominance of low socioeconomic statuses. Our students don’t have the same opportunities other children have. So we expose them to new foods they won’t get at home.”

The grant provides about 50 cents per day per child for fruits and vegetables. Every afternoon, schools offer all children a fresh fruit or vegetable snack. Martin has served everything from pomegranate and jicama to sugar snap peas, star fruit and mangoes.

“Our children get so excited,” she says. “When they walk in the school, one of the first things they do is look at the table to see what the fresh fruit or vegetable will be that afternoon. We put it there in the morning, and then during the day, we tell them where it comes from — whether it’s grown underground, on a plant, in a bush, or on a tree — and the nutritional value. We’re trying to get them the basics and show we need farmers because food doesn’t come from Walmart. We also want them to go home and say to their parents, ‘Today, I ate a mango, and I liked it. Will you buy me one?’ We think we’re having a huge impact on future generations in trying to develop healthy eaters.”

Martin says very few kids refuse to sample the day’s snack. “Each student gets a baggie with it,” she says. “If the teachers will model the good behavior, the children will try it. Recently, we had figs. About a third of the students liked them, and two-thirds didn’t. But at least that third will grow up liking figs.”

In 2014, Martin began sourcing her food from local farmers, which she says has been the most “eye-opening” experience of her job. She started by connecting with a co-operative agricultural extension group and inviting its members to a lunch to discuss the possibility of working together. Twenty showed up to hear Martin explain that her schools serve breakfast, lunch, an afternoon snack and supper. Then she asked if they could source any of the food. The answer was an enthusiastic yes.

“They grew a lot of corn, soybeans and peanuts, but they also had land they weren’t doing anything with,” recalls Martin. “They said, ‘If we knew somebody would buy the product, we’d grow it.”

Last year, Martin bought locally grown collard greens, broccoli, honeydew, cantaloupe, strawberries, blueberries — you name it. One farmer provided 2,500 peaches each week for eight weeks. “He’s now our best friend in the whole world,” says Martin. “He was able to do more volume at his farm and get his peaches in grocery stores, too. That was huge for him.” Another farmer recently told her he couldn’t provide any more food because he’d become too busy with other clients. Martin was happy for him — and for herself, since his products were among her most expensive.

Why aren’t more schools doing this? It’s a complex system to manage, says Martin. “It takes a lot of time to get it started,” she explains. “I had lots of issues learning how to order from farmers. You’re used to ordering one way. But with the farmers, how will you figure out the pack size? When are you ordering things? Also, we can’t take food in certain forms. We can’t clean and wash collard greens. We can’t take corn that hasn’t been shucked. It’s very time-consuming building relationships, checking out the farms to make sure they’re safe, and setting farmers up for billing. But the goodwill with teachers and the community is so huge. The teachers finally want to eat with us because of all the local food.”

Growing pains

Clear across the country in Washington, Ellen Gray has also encountered challenges as she’s worked to expand servings of local products in local schools. The executive director of the Washington Sustainable Food & Farming Network in Mount Vernon recounts how in 2008, local schools got $1.5 million to purchase Washington-grown fruits and vegetables to nourish kids and support the state’s farmers. Imagine her surprise when she found her fourth-grade daughter’s healthy snack — bulletized carrots — labeled “processed and distributed in Sacramento, Calif.”

Gray learned the carrots were actually grown in her state but trucked out of state for processing and packaging before being trucked back to land in kids’ backpacks. From that realization came a new project called Fresh Food in Schools, intended to build relationships between farmers and school food service directors.

As with Martin’s program, there’s been a learning curve. “A lot of schools didn’t know how to cook — it had been just opening bags, warming food up, and serving it,” she says. “There’s a huge need to do staff training. We’ve also had horror stories of stoves so old it takes five hours to boil a huge pot of water. And when we first started, nobody had salad bars. We recognized there were infrastructure limitations.”

However, the result is that working with 20 school districts and three part-time food coordinators, the program has increased schools’ purchasing of Washington- grown fruits and vegetables by more than $1 million.

What does Gray say to those who complain about do-gooders taking over school lunch programs? “Healthy food is a nonpartisan issue, and food-to-school programs are a very good economic business,” she argues. “They help local farmers stay economically viable and help kids get access to healthier food, which we hope will decrease the burden on our health care system. It’s a win for farmers, schools and communities.”

How does your garden grow?

Healthier lunches are important, but Gray’s pride and joy is school gardens. “So many wonderful things come out of school gardens,” she says. “Our local Lincoln Elementary didn’t have one, so a bunch of us got together. We got a Home Depot grant and built the garden. Then we started having cooking classes with the stuff we harvested, and we’d all sit together and eat. A student in welding class created our metal sign. A math teacher used the garden as a project to measure and build compost bins. We also collaborated with a community group to take care of the garden during the summer, with the food going to the local food bank.”

The Kitchen Community, a nonprofit organization in Boulder, Colo., also believes in the cornucopia of riches that come from school gardens. Its mission is to build community through food with its learning gardens. They’re above-ground gardens built by the organization and supported by its full-time education staff. Currently, there are 240 of the 1,200-1,500-square-foot gardens in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Memphis schools and in schools throughout Colorado.

Students learn all about what they’re helping plant, cultivate and harvest. They eat the fruits of their labor on the spot, in their school lunch or during classroom events — or they take it home for their family to enjoy, says Courtney Walsh, director of community engagement.

The organization is currently funding research into the effects of its gardens. Anecdotal results show that aggression is down at schools that have learning gardens, reports Walsh. “Studies also show that if kids plant vegetables, they’re 60 times more likely to eat them, and that’s definitely taking place,” she adds. “There’s a lot more community happening around food and the idea of harvesting it and the understanding where it comes from.”

Advocates expect nothing but continued growth in the push to improve school food and, in turn, communities. “This movement is integrally linked with the overall public desire for fresher foods and for local, organic foods,” says Joshi. “I see that future being really bright. Schools can serve as change agents in their communities.”

G.M. Filisko is an attorney and freelance writer who writes frequently on real estate, business and legal issues. Ms. Filisko served as an editor at NAR’s REALTOR© Magazine for 10 years.

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