What Really Needs to Change in School Food
It started with a panel of experts.
A few years back, I held an open panel to initiate the discussion regarding the food in the schools within our school district. The panelists included three experts in their field, each representing a different facet of change for the school food system. The first panelist was the Food Services Director from our district. The second was a Senior Consultant for the Nutrition and Wellness Program of the State Board of Education. The third, the CEO of Beyond Green, a company focused on transforming not only schools, but various institutions to a more sustainable (think less waste, alternative equipment, fresh, local, organic foods). I was amazed at the amount of knowledge that was present up on the stage, and even more so at the experience of how these three individuals (and the institutions for which they worked) kept the system working and were constantly looking to improve.
The school districts were open to change.
Not only were they open to change, they seemed to be leading the way with innovative measures to change school food. Our school district introduced a standing rotisserie for students in addition to serving broiled salmon and fresh spinach salads. They had a chef’s corner in place, where students could learn about the food they were eating, and they welcomed volunteers to come in and share their knowledge. Present at the open panel, were food service reps from numerous districts from around the city that were open to change. How do I know they were open to change? They were in the seat. They wanted to do better, make a change – to be part of that change.
Aside from being enormously humbled by the amount of determination, commitment and innovation present on stage and in the audience, I was confused. Why don’t we see these permanent changes as an integral part of our school nutrition system? Why is there seemingly so much animosity against the school food? My answer was right in front of me, not from the present audience occupying the seats, but in who was missing.
I took special note of who was not present.
Parents and students were extremely low in representation, especially in comparison with members from the school district. These are key players who need to be on board for a change to happen. There are also other challenges. How do we help kids want to eat healthier food? It seems that students don't inherently seem to eat or choose the healthier food. This is a complex dimension of the obstacle school communities face because it directly relates to purchasing food and cost to the district.
The district often loses money when the school purchases the food, and the kids don't buy it. In a way, schools are competing with outside food providers, especially when kids have the choice to leave campus. In the high schools with open campus lunches, the schools are competing with fast food restaurants, so they continue to offer pizza, burgers and fries to stay in the game. As it stands, so much food is wasted by students not choosing the healthier, more perishable items or simply dumping them if they don’t want to eat them.
So, what to do?
A cost-effective solution is to purchase food that doesn’t spoil. Enter in less perishable, packaged food. The processed food lasts longer, costs less, and is often chosen more by the kids. So, that is what the districts push to buy. This is increasingly the case in lower-income districts, as the funds are not available to support fresher foods. Yet, these are the kids that need it the most. School may often be the one place they can count on a healthier meal. The priority needs to be the health of the children. As parents, we can make a difference.
Change can happen.
It just needs motivation and a little action. One thousand students from a suburban township outside of Chicago signed a petition to the school board, who then, had no choice but to take notice. And this township has now completely transformed their food service program to lower cost, decreased waste, and increased fresh, local and even organic foods. Socio-economic forces are at often at play, yet we can advocate for the change for all children, regardless of the district boundaries.