Policy makers, the medical community, and education officials may have the best intentions and the most up-to-date nutritional information for feeding school kids, but those kids must actually want to put said food into their mouths or it's all just a giant bureaucratic waste of money and effort.
Last November, I visited Northside Elementary School in Chapel Hill, which is part of the Chapel Hill Carrboro City Schools system, to write for the INDY about the history of school lunch and the ways schools were addressing the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, signed into law by President Obama. It set new standards for fruits, vegetables, whole grains, sugar, sodium, and fats in school lunches. To meet them, the district hired food-service contractor Chartwells to manage its nutrition programs.
March is National Nutrition Month, and last Thursday, McDougle Elementary School held an event to celebrate National Whole Grain Sampling Day, a push to expose more Americans to nutritious whole grains. Liz Cartano, the Chartwells director of dining at CCHCS, along with district chef Jordan Keyser and dietician Lynne Privette, were joined by Jay Ziobrowski.
"Call me Chef Jay-Z," he said. He's from InHarvest, a Minnesota company that provides rice, grains, legumes, education, and recipes to food-service institutions and sells in bulk to places like Whole Foods.
The entire student body attended the event: 564 kids, from pre-K to fifth graders. It was a good opportunity to find out how these nutritional efforts were going over with the end consumer. The children were served samples of lime cilantro quinoa with fresh greens, tomatoes, salsa, low-fat cheddar, sour cream, and a couple of whole-grain tortilla chips on top.
But did the kids like it? Common wisdom says kids don't like unusual foods. They want to stay in their culinary comfort zone of macaroni and cheese, pizza, and chicken nuggets. They want artificially colored and flavored, sugary, fried, faux food. Different is scary and weird.
At the event, a large sign read "quinoa" on one side and had the phonetic pronunciation on the other. The plan was to show the children how to pronounce the word after their hilarious, failed attempts. But because of in-class nutrition discussions, most of these kids were not completely unfamiliar with whole grains, and many had eaten some varieties at home. The majority was familiar with quinoa's pronunciation. Many of the kids were nutritionally savvy, with adventurous palates. Counterintuitively, Keyser said, the younger the diner, the more open to experimenting. They've learned from past events that older kids are not nearly so open to new flavors and textures.
Of course, even among the quinoa kids, many list classics like pizza, hot dogs, and corndogs as favorite cafeteria foods, and there will always be picky eaters. One little guy, barely nibbling a single chip, declared he didn't like anything in the sample. He explained that he doesn't like vegetables, not any of them. He likes meat—just meat. A T-Rex second grader.
Privette acknowledged the school's inability to mandate healthy standards for lunch boxes, but the policy of teaching about and serving healthy foods seems to be working. McDougle faculty members say that the majority of home-sourced food is actually pretty wholesome. Even the snacks are usually fresh fruit and raw veggies. (In elementary school, I had a Little Debbie brownie every day.)
Right around the time my first school-lunch story was printed, the Trump administration, citing food waste and "schools experiencing hardship in obtaining whole-grain-rich products acceptable to students," loosened the limits on fat, salt, and sugars and instituted a procedure for states to grant exceptions to the mandate of serving whole-grain-rich foods, with the date of full compliance set for the 2020–21 school year.
American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown disagrees with the administration's assertions. "In the last five years, nearly one hundred percent of the nation's participating schools have complied with updated school-meal standards," she said when the administration proposed the rule modifications. "Kids across the country have clearly benefited from these changes."
Many districts, including CCHCS, have decided to stick with the more stringent nutritional benchmarks. But it's more expensive to feed healthier meals. And with budget cuts coming from all sides, school systems may choose their cafeterias as places to save money.
Aristotle said, "Give us a child till he's seven and we'll have him for life." It's not only true of philosophy but of nutrition as well. Unfortunately, by lowering dietary standards in schools, that vital window of opportunity may be closing, and the progress made so far, squandered.