The School Food Revolution: Not Seen on TV

April 20, 2011

Despite all the hoopla, and battling both limited resources and rising food costs, school nutrition programs across the country are making major improvements.

Despite all the hoopla, and with both limited resources and rising food costs, school nutrition programs across the country have been working away behind the scenes, making tremendous progress in offering healthier meals in school cafeterias; according to the School Nutrition Association, a national, non-profit professional organization, that provides high-quality, low-cost meals to students across the country. But not all of these successes have had their 5 seconds of fame- like the success Jamie Oliver saw from his stint in West Virginia’s Cabell County school system. Good news about school meals just doesn’t bring in the TV ratings or their deserved accolades.  
The School Nutrition Association’s Back to School Trends Report found that schools are serving more whole grains and fresh produce, while working to reduce added sodium and sugar in foods served on the lunch line. Many school districts are encouraging extra helpings of fruits and vegetables and now have fresh salad bars; over half of schools are increasing vegetarian options. The report also shows that nearly a third of districts are purchasing locally sourced items while more than half use energy efficient equipment and 44 percent recycle packaging waste. Many schools have implemented kids cooking competitions, partnerships with local chefs, and garden nutrition education programs.
One disturbing fact is that most school cafeterias do not have trained staff nor equipment to cook foods from scratch. On a brighter note, even these schools have started using higher quality prepared foods including leaner meats, more whole grains and less salt and sugar to make even the prepared foods served in schools healthier than ever. Examples include: baked sweet potato “fries” or wedges, and pizza served on whole grain crust with low-fat cheese and low-sodium sauce.
Cooking healthy can be achieved on a budget and these changes have only come because of hard work and the perseverance of school nutrition professionals. We must remember three things when advocating for healthier food choices: first - the cost constraints, second- the complexity of the rules governing the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, and third- to acknowledge the great work that is already producing change in our nation’s schools.