Junk Food Flunks
Chef Ann Cooper
Turning School Food into Healthy ‘Cool Food’
By Sandy Graham
Photograph by Kurty Wong
Say goodbye to schools where soda pop machines sit in hallways, snack bars sell candy and fat-laden chips, and cafeterias specialize in pizza and french fries.
More American students in preschools through high schools are seeing fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains replacing fats and processed foods in their cafeterias. Colorado is at the forefront of menu changes: The state’s Board of Education recently banned soda pop and other high-calorie drinks from schools. And some Colorado schools are even teaching gardening and cooking to involve kids in healthy eating. There is much more work to be done, but parents, educators and health experts driving the changes are making gradual headway.
“Certainly there are places making changes, but we’re just at the beginning. By and large, the food on the plate in most schools is spectacularly bad,” says chef Ann Cooper, who is known as the “Renegade Lunch Lady” for advocating healthy school foods and who just went to work for the Boulder Valley School District.
The nation’s obesity epidemic is a prime reason school food is changing. Heavier children suffer from more weight-related health problems such as diabetes. Even in Colorado, the nation’s leanest state, some 13 percent of children ages 10 to 17 are obese and another 13 percent are overweight, according to 2007 state estimates.
No Junk Food Junkies
“If we want (children) to develop lifelong good nutrition and health habits, they shouldn’t go to school and eat junk,” says Cooper, who spent five years as director of nutrition services for the Berkeley (Calif.) Unified School District.
But holding the line on the childhood obesity epidemic is not the only compelling reason to change the foods children are offered in schools. A growing body of evidence finds that children who eat well have fewer behavioral issues and do better in school.
A 1998 article in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found that regular participants in the federally funded School Breakfast Program improved their learning and academic achievement outcomes, paid greater attention to academic tasks, had fewer visits to the school nurse and had fewer behavioral problems. The breakfast program began in 1966 and served more than 9.7 million lower-income children in fiscal year 2006 alone, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A 2001 study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that children who reported that they didn’t get enough to eat were more likely to have significantly lower arithmetic scores, repeat a grade, see a psychologist and have difficulty getting along with other children.
Teachers Like Change
Teachers often tell Herminia Vigil, director of the Colorado Department of Education’s nutrition unit, that they observe the link between academic performance and good nutrition in the classroom almost daily. Teachers “truly, truly are supporters” of improving school nutrition, Vigil says, because they see how it can improve learning and behavior.
The nutrition unit helps Colorado school districts decipher the complexities of the 62-year-old National School Lunch Program, which serves reduced-price and free meals to lower-income students. Participation in the lunch program is voluntary, but Vigil says that almost all of Colorado’s elementary and middle schools and many high schools participate. The unit also offers training to school food service workers and helps move nutrition education into the classroom and the cafeteria.
Those feeding Colorado’s school children want to do their best, Vigil says. “Food service workers have the biggest hearts of any profession I know. They’re very proud of the meals they do produce,” she says.
But according to Vigil, serving healthier foods in cafeterias is challenging. Using ready-made, processed foods is usually cheaper and easier for financially pressured schools – but certainly not as nutritious as fresh foods. The federal government reimburses schools just $2.57 for a free lunch and $2.17 for a reduced-price lunch, leaving little for buying food after overhead is met. It’s also hard for more remote Colorado schools, hoping to serve more fresh foods, to find suppliers willing to deliver to faraway towns at affordable prices.
Still, Vigil believes that Colorado students are eating better than they were 10 years ago. “Everybody has tried to come together so we’re meeting a common goal to have healthy choices for kiddos and make sure they’re getting the nutrients and not the trash can,” she says.
Pop Goes the Soda
One of the biggest changes Colorado students will see in coming months is the disappearance of soda pop and other high-calorie drinks. School districts that have lucrative agreements to sell specific companies’ products will not be able to renew the agreements after they expire. The ban was instituted by the Board of Education in response to legislation requiring it to set nutritional standards for drinks in schools.
A similar effort to set nutritional guidelines for snack food in schools failed this year.
Elaine Gantz Berman, a Denver member of the Colorado Board of Education, has heard criticism of the soda pop ban. “A lot of naysayers will say, ‘What’s the point? All kids are going to do is go home and have some anyway.’ I believe schools should be models for good, healthy behavior,” Berman says.
Cooper, the Renegade Lunch Lady, agrees that Colorado’s soda pop ban was a positive step. But she believes that schools must do more to change children’s relationship to food, starting in elementary school and moving through the higher grades.
“We didn’t get to this overnight. We’re not going to change it overnight. It’s really a 12-year solution. … School food must be seen as ‘cool food,’” Cooper says.
|A 2008 poll commissioned by the Colorado Health Foundation found widespread public support for improving the nutritional value of food and beverages available in public schools. Armed with this knowledge, the Foundation joined a diverse coalition of organizations to support legislation to improve beverage standards in Colorado schools. The coalition’s work led the passage of Senate Bill 08-129 last spring, directing the Board of Education to adopt vending machine beverage standards in all public and charter schools.