Want a Healthy, Affordable, Homemade Lunch? Go to School.
All across the nation, school nutrition departments are joining a movement to bring back cooking in their cafeterias. The decision to return to making lunches from scratch is driven by parents and kids wanting change. They want fresher, cleaner foods, not reheated food from boxes with mystery ingredients. The federal government is also continuing to change regulations aimed at improving child nutrition. A key point, changes made with student input are having the most success.
The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 championed by first lady Michelle Obama sets limits on the amount of sodium, calories and saturated fat school breakfasts, lunches and snacks can contain, and it mandates that schools offer a variety of different vegetables and fruits and swap out white bread for whole wheat.
Here are the facts about school food since 2012:
More fruits and vegetables: Schools must offer students fruits and vegetables with every lunch and increase the portion sizes.
Vegetable choices at lunch must include weekly offerings of: legumes, dark green, and red or orange vegetables.
Every school breakfast must offer students a full cup of fruits or vegetables. Students are required to take at least one half-cup serving of fruits or vegetables with every school breakfast and lunch.
Whole grains: All grains offered with school meals must be whole grain-rich (51% whole grain).
Sodium limits: Schools must gradually reduce sodium levels in school meals over a ten year period
Calorie limits: School meals must meet age-appropriate calorie minimums and maximums:
Limits on unhealthy fat: Meals cannot contain added trans-fat and no more than 10 percent of calories can come from saturated fat.
Low-fat and fat-free milk: Every school meal offers one cup of fat-free or 1% milk. Flavored milk must be fat-free.
Free water: Free drinking water must be available in the cafeteria during lunch and breakfast.
With the new guidelines firmly in place, cafeterias are serving up healthier foods. But, a long history of heat and serve has to go. Frozen, processed foods tend to contain loads of sodium and calories, and making fresh foods with less processing and additives means more cooking from scratch. Fresh herbs and spices improve the taste of the food when cooking with less salt.
Lower sodium guidelines mean more inventive cooking in kitchens to ensure the children will eat the new, healthier food. We want healthier kids, not healthier garbage cans! So, school cafeterias have come up with fun ways to spice up the menu and get the children to eat the food. In each winning case, the students are involved in deciding the menu.
UTAH: Park City School District: 15toClean & Adventure Bites = Improved Health Designed by the Students
The 15 TO CLEAN initiative will remove 15 unnecessary additives over the next three years while introducing at least 18 new recipes for students to try each year. Recipes are created in partnership PCSD child nutrition staff and renowned Park City eating establishments. The recipes will range from entreés to salad dressings -- and ingredients will be sourced locally whenever possible. Students will vet the choices through the tast test program Adventure Bites, presented by EATS Park City every two weeks at each school. Through Adventure Bites, kids will help handpick options to be placed on the school menus by voting on each taste test.
MASS: Cambridge Public Schools: Tasty Choices & City Sprouts = Student designed menu, plus edible garden education
Ranked #1 in the nation for school food services, Cambridge Public Schools uses their Tasty Choices program to offer taste tests of new recipes to students as a way to gauge their taste preferences. All the elementary schools have school gardens and work with CitySprouts, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching students about the benefits of fresh, healthy food, and working with teachers to expand garden learning in science, math and social studies. CitySprouts participates in seasonal taste tests, and garden coordinators are connected with each school kitchen manager to bring student grown produce into the lunchroom whenever possible. In addition to using school grown produce the department works hard to source product from local and regional farms. By sourcing locally, students have access to the freshest food possible, yielding the best and brightest flavors.
MINN: Minneapolis Public Schools: Food Truck, Community Events & School Gardens = Healthy, well-funded food program for students
Minneapolis Public Schools lunch menu include: fresh fruit, a salad bar, even quinoa. The foods are free of artificial food dyes, artificial sweeteners, even most antibiotics and hormones used in livestock. MPS takes reservations for their Food Truck to serve special school events. On Thursdays, all schools offer an entirely local menu highlighting what foods are available in Minnesota.
The key ingredients to making school food delicious: student customization; school gardens; and chef training for child nutrition staff. Next time you are looking for a healthy, homemade lunch, go to your local school and see what's cooking!