Insights: The Evolution of School Lunches
It's an unfortunate truth that not every child in America has access to fresh, healthy food at school. The impact isn't just nutritional; research shows that unhealthy food (or a lack of food altogether) can deal a real blow to a child's ability to learn. If we want to ensure healthy futures for these children, their communities, and our country, we need to take action to stop the negative impact that processed and packaged food has on our kids and our education system. We know it will work, because it's already being done.
As a veteran lunch lady, I understand first-hand the challenges that school food programs face with very little financial or technical support. But, the answer to these school food challenges lies not in waivers or rollbacks to the current USDA guidelines outlined in the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, but in scratch cooking and helping schools transition away from processed food. For more than a decade now, we have seen school districts throughout the country step up their game and prove their effective changes can be made with the help of the right resources, tools, and support programs.
Where do school districts begin to change? At an operational level, schools can tap into existing resources, such as The Lunch Box, which I created with my school food colleagues. It offers schools step-by-step guides for changing food purchasing practices and policies, and a management section that includes fiscal analysis tools, reorganization strategies, HR resources, and baseline assessment tools to guide strategic planning. The site also provides a robust recipe and menu cycle database. Kid tested and school kitchen approved, these USDA compliant recipes are offered for free, currently being used by 1,000s of school food service employees across the country, and serve as proof that tasty recipes and diverse menus are at the heart of school food change.
While we can take steps to change the food, there is real work to be done in engaging the students -- teaching kids that food is fun, and that making "good choices" also equals "delicious choices". The most successful school food programs are supported through effective marketing and education programs that connect the food served in the cafeteria with developing healthy lifestyles, nutrition education, agriculture, and cooking. Improving school food is about more than just feeding our kids; it's about utilizing our cafeterias as classrooms for building a truly healthy next generation.