Something was different at the school cafeteria.
The menu included a vegetarian meal of elbow macaroni with cheddar cheese and broccoli. There was also a choice of a 100-percent-beef burger (without pink slime!) on a whole-grain bun. And there was ginger-carrot soup, whole-grain breads, leafy green salads, black beans and shredded cheese.
I was amazed. Turns out, this was part of a cafeteria overhaul focusing less on processed, high-sugar foods and more on fresh, in-season, locally grown vegetables and whole grains. I was in a school lunch line at a Title I elementary school, not at a fancy restaurant on Main Street!
Last year, our school district's Food and Nutrition Services (FANS) selected 80 food service professionals from 11 elementary schools and one middle school to receive special training. The staff volunteered to study a week at the Culinary Institute of the Carolinas at Greenville Technical College.
When I learned about this healthier school lunch initiative, I thought it might make the work harder for the food service professionals. My mom and both of my grandmothers were elementary school "lunchroom ladies."
"The transformation was as much for those “lunch ladies” as it was for the students and nutrition," said Ron Jones, culinary specialist for our district. "While more and careful preparation is required to make lunches from scratch, this training will also prepare our food service professionals to talk about nutrition with parents and know they are helping their students become healthier,” Jones said.
The effort is supported throughout the community. Katy Pugh Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Piedmont Health Care Foundation, "aims to make Greenville County a healthier place to live, work and play." It provided grants to cover the $1,000 fee for each food service professional to attend the Culinary Institute.
And on the ground floor, where it matters most, students are learning about new foods and nutrition. One elementary school teacher noticed a gradual change. “As the year has gone on, the children have begun 'bragging' that they tasted something they didn't think they would like,” she said. “All in all, I think it's working."
The menu changes are important. In the school I visited, where nearly 100 percent of the students receive free and reduced lunches and parents have a tough time providing healthy food for their children, the lunch menu has become the school's morning news. They learn about fresh cod and baked penne. They also learn and experience how these kinds of foods taste good and are better for them than chicken nuggets and pizza.
Because of the lunch initiative, our district was a runner-up for the 2011 Golden Carrot Award given by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine to "recognize food service professionals doing an exceptional job of improving the healthfulness of school lunches."
We’re reminded in the Teaching Tolerance article Weighing In: Healthy at Any Size that we harm children when we focus negatively on their weight. Wouldn't it be kinder to focus on healthy eating for all of us than to emphasize the BMI's (body mass indexes) of some of us? It serves our students better to teach nutrition and offer nutritious meals to everyone in our schools. Everyone benefits when we eat healthier.
Barton is an elementary school teacher in South Carolina.