Alarming child obesity rates have pushed school lunch reform to the forefront. High-profile spokespeople such as first lady Michelle Obama and California chef and local food activist Alice Waters have taken on the issue, as have legislators and policymakers.
More important, parents want healthier food in their school cafeterias, and they’re willing to pitch in to make sure schools offer their kids better choices. So says an October 2009 survey from Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a joint program of the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation.
“The national survey signals the breadth of parents’ support for changes to make schools healthier places—and their willingness to help make those changes happen,” the organization says. “Nearly eight in 10 parents are ready to get more involved to create a healthier environment in their local schools.”
You can work with your school to get on track for healthier meals. Some schools have formed nutrition or wellness committees, which may work with food suppliers to get healthier varieties of popular foods. For instance, your cafeteria supervisor may be able to order pizza with low-fat cheese, chicken nuggets with less breading, and sweet potato fries instead of Idaho French fries.
The goal is not just to encourage children to eat healthier meals at lunchtime, but also to instill good eating habits that will carry over into adulthood. Here are just a few ways schools are making their cafeteria lunches healthier and teaching students to make better choices.
Edible Schoolyard, Berkeley, Calif.: This one-acre organic garden and kitchen classroom is run by celebrated chef Alice Waters and her Chez Panisse Foundation for students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. Students help with growing, harvesting, and cooking seasonal fruits and vegetables.
Meatless Monday, Baltimore, Md.: The 80,000-student Baltimore City Public School System became the first school district in the United States to join the Meatless Monday trend, which aims to educate people about plant-based protein alternatives. The district is also working with local farmers to provide locally raised fruits, vegetables, and milk. In addition to health benefits, kids are learning about the environmental benefits of eating locally and reducing consumption of meat.
Rachael Ray’s Yum-o!, New York, N.Y.: The celebrity chef and TV personality is creating recipes for New York City schools to use in their cafeterias. Parents may access the recipes through her website. The city already has made strides in making meals healthier. Ray’s objective is to make the healthy food taste better. For the program’s launch, she offered soft tacos, sweet roasted corn, vegetarian beans, steamed broccoli, and her signature ranch sauce.
Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, Huntington, W.Va.: The British TV chef plans to replicate a successful effort in the U.K., where he reformed school “dinner” and educated the “dinner lady” about preparing healthier meals for school kids. This time, he’s filming in Huntington, known as the unhealthiest city in America based on data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He plans to observe how kids eat at home and at school, in hopes of rallying the community to make changes. Along the way, he’ll help the local schools teach kids to make better choices.
Farm to School Initiative from the Community Alliance With Family Farmers, California: Through this program, schools may purchase locally grown produce without compromising already tight budgets. The goal is to help kids learn to enjoy fresh, local food and understand how to balance a diet heavy in processed foods with healthier alternatives. The program also offers field trips and classroom lessons.