Whether you loved square cheese pizzas, looked forward to chicken-nugget day, or loaded up your tray with doughy breadsticks and ranch dressing, just about everyone has a memory of school lunch. Now, local chefs are working together to create healthy, restaurant-worthy school lunches to raise awareness about school-meal standards and state funding for school-meal programs.
In North Carolina, 869,954 children ate school lunch in December 2017, making the state's school-nutrition program the seventh largest in the country, according to the N.C. Parent Teacher Association. Three-fifths of them were eligible for free or reduced-price lunches (determined on the basis of the family's size and income); these are the kids who have more than half of their nutritional needs met through school meals.
Most of the state's school-nutrition funding comes from federal reimbursements, and the current reimbursement rates for free and reduced-price meals don't fully offset the cost to schools. This adversely affects the quality and nutrition of school meals.
Besides providing vital nutrition, high-quality school meals are also associated with improved academic performance, according to a 2017 Brookings Institution study, and are a less costly investment than reducing class size to achieve the same result, according to the national PTA. Yet three bills currently in the state House's Appropriations Committee that would provide additional funding to the state's school-nutrition and meal programs look unlikely to go anywhere during the General Assembly's short session, which begins on May 16.
The first bill, House Bill 891, would make all school meals free at an annual cost of $200 million. The second, House Bill 892, is considerably cheaper at $5 million; it would make reduced-price lunches free to students who qualify. The third, House Bill 893, would provide $10 million to help child-nutrition programs meet school lunch requirements.
But all these bills are sponsored by Democrats in a Republican-dominated legislature, and they've languished in committee since last year. There's little reason to be optimistic that will change anytime soon.
Still, the NCPTA sees an opportunity to start a conversation, raise awareness, and put pressure on lawmakers to create a more meaningful bipartisan bill next year, likely one that ties reimbursement to buying more local produce for schools, which in turn supports local farmers. While there isn't yet a bill in place, the NCPTA's efforts leading up to the General Assembly's long session in January will be focused on getting legislators on board.
"We are at a critical point where, as a state, we need to discuss investing in school meals," says Virginia Jicha, president of the NCPTA. "It's an opportunity. Not only would it be great for the health of children, but it has the potential to be great for our economy by supporting local agriculture."
One of the NCPTA's new initiatives to get parents and community members talking is Reimagining School Meals, which aims to increase support of school meals, promote understanding of nutrition standards, and inspire new ideas for healthy and delicious school meals. And who better to spark that conversation—and create those meal ideas—than chefs?
At the NCPTA's first Reimagining School Meals event on April 26 at Southern Season, four local chefs served a school meal that provided a serving of a healthy protein, a serving of vegetables, a serving of fruit, and a whole grain to fifty school-meal advocates and parents, in the hope that these meals would be adopted by North Carolina schools.
Sean Fowler, who owns farm-to-table fine-dining restaurant Mandolin, was one of the first chefs to get involved. Fowler became concerned about the food insecurity issues facing N.C. schoolchildren during a James Beard Foundation advocacy program that was held at The Durham Hotel last fall.
His challenge for the NCPTA event was to dream up a dish that not only cost less than $2 and met thirteen key components of the National School Lunch Program's guidelines (there are more than eighty pages of them, including restrictions on fat and sodium), but also one that kids would like to eat.
As a father of two-year-old twin daughters, Fowler knows this challenge firsthand. To create a dish that would be as appealing to kids as it was nutritious, he considered the types of food his girls ate at home and looked to Instagram for trend inspiration. He used poke bowls as a jumping-off point, but raw fish was out of the question for budget and food-safety reasons. So he created a Ponzu Chicken Poke Bowl instead, featuring lightly seasoned brown rice, ponzu-glazed chicken, and a medley of vegetables that were chosen as much for their nutritional value as for their local sourcing potential: edamame, radishes, cucumbers, and kale. He added pineapple for sweetness, with a garnish of chopped nori and mint, and finished the bowl with what he calls yum yum sauce, made with a touch of mayo, soy sauce, and paprika.
Though it's a departure from his refined Southern cuisine, Fowler has added the dish to Mandolin's menu ($12) through May 16. All proceeds will be donated to Inter-Faith Food Shuttle's BackPack Buddies program, which provides grocery-filled backpacks to food-insecure kids to take home over the weekend, when free school meals are not available. (Fowler also serves on the board of directors for Inter-Faith Food Shuttle.)
Fowler is rallying his peers to join the cause, calling on the other chefs from the April 26 NCPTA event to consider adding their reimagined school lunches to their restaurant menus. Bo Peterson from Primal had served a reimagined sloppy Joe featuring ground beef thickened with chickpea puree and sweetened with carrot juice, piled on a whole grain bun with cheese and served with a side of apples. Jake Wood from 18 Seaboard whipped up a whole-grain flatbread with avocado spread, roasted tomatoes, radishes, and chicken, served with pineapple chia-seed pudding and a cucumber-and-strawberry salad. Regan Stachler from Hull Foods made whole-grain pasta tossed with olive oil and chicken sausage, served with sides of braised kale, a tahini-and-chickpea potato salad, and melon with honey and lime.
"I think that chefs are really vital in the conversation," says Marianne Weant, director of family engagement for the NCPTA. "They understand food; they understand food systems; they understand local food sourcing and farms. And more importantly, they have followings that are not necessarily like us—that are not just moms and dads, but other people who would be willing to get energized around this."
Correction: This post originally misspelled the surname of NCPTA President Virginia Jicha.