Natural Foods Merchandiser

Kids line up for lunches that make the grade

Mystery meat. Lunch ladies. Ketchup as a vegetable. No matter when you grew up, school lunches competed with monsters under the bed as a primary childhood terror.

Now, to add insult to injury, parents and school administrators are trying to do the unthinkable: make school lunches healthy. From New York to Los Angeles, school districts are hiring chefs to upgrade the taste and nutritional value of the meals served on campus. And they've done their homework. Now absent from many meals are trans fats, corn syrup, nitrates, MSG, BHT, high levels of salt or sugar, and artificial colors, preservatives and sweeteners. And for extra credit, many school lunches include organic and local foods, with a heavy emphasis on fruits and vegetables.

Chef Jorge Collazo was teaching at the New England Culinary Institute in quaint Montpelier, Vt., when he began focusing on food politics, allergies and nutrition. Before he knew it, he was trading in his toque at an elite institution for baseball caps in Brooklyn. He's now executive chef in the New York City Department of Education's Office of School Food, in charge of serving 860,000 meals a day in the nation's largest school district. He banned the above ingredients in 2004. "The organization is moving at a pretty aggressive pace to increase the level of nutrition in the food, and also in the culinary sense—[to make] changes in the perception of school food in the community, in terms of style and appearance. We're trying to feed as many kids as we can the best possible food that we can."

That's a sentiment echoed by school chefs across the country. "The obesity crisis is what's driving this [change]," says chef Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services at Berkeley Unified School District in California. "You have to be dead to not realize what's happening. Schools are starting to really think about wellness."

But those spearheading the change are under no illusions, either. "We understand very clearly that kids want to eat chicken nuggets," says Beth Kimball, whose Los Angeles-based company, Beth's Kitchen, contracts with 23 public and independent schools in the metro area. "We work hard on our menus being realistic. What we try to do is work on having a product that is more healthful," Kimball says, estimating that no more than 10 percent of the foods she serves are processed.

"[Kids are] used to seeing a Subway-type sandwich, which has too much sodium and nitrates," Kimball says. "So we very quietly changed the product so it's nitrate-free, low-sodium turkey. The bread is whole-grain but white whole-grain." Kimball also serves water instead of juice, brown rice instead of white, and meat and dairy raised without antibiotics or hormones. "We have vegan choices one day a week," she adds. Next year, she says, parents will be able to specify if they'd like their children's lunches to be organic.

"I do think we need to serve more organic food, but that's not where we start," Cooper says. "We start by just getting healthy food on kids' plates; for decades we've been serving really horrible, really processed foods." Cooper focuses on using local food, including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. She estimates her typical vegetable order is four times what it was before introducing her program.

Arithmetic and civics for grown-ups
Some school administrators and parents might shudder at the number of bake sales that might be necessary to fund a healthy school-food operation. But the chefs leading the revolution say the price isn't that steep. "It does not necessarily cost more to serve minimally processed foods," Cooper says. "You have to be more thoughtful about it" and serve foods that are regionally available and in season, she says. At Cooper's schools, "There's no tomatoes in February—end of story."

However, it often costs more to serve organic, Cooper says, and even at BUSD, the food budget has increased by 20 percent. Some school districts might need to find creative financing to assuage dubious parents and board members.

Max's Organic Planet, headed by chef Joshua Grabowsky, caters an organic lunch program for five schools in the Chicago area. Each week, the company uses approximately 125 pounds each of natural or organic chicken nuggets, chicken breasts, grass-fed beef burgers and tater tots. It goes through 750 organic tortillas, 500 pounds of fresh organic fruit and 500 organic yogurt cups each week.

Grabowsky gets creative by asking manufacturers to donate their overstock and nearly expired products in return for heavy promotions, such as placing their logos and product names on every monthly menu and every e-mail blast. Donors also get category exclusivity. "A retailer like Whole Foods could do the same thing," Grabowsky says. Or, he suggests, manufacturers and retailers could "donate $15,000 or so to have an organic school garden in their name—that would be a pretty good move."

David Berkowitz, the executive director of school food services in the New York district where Collazo works, says he simply runs the school food program like a business. For example, the program has developed marketing initiatives to entice more kids to buy school lunch. Burrito bars, deli bars and theme days—Viva Italian, Chinese Fortune and Cinco de Mayo are just a few—all help to build participation, Berkowitz says. "As we build the program and bring in more kids, it brings in more revenue and helps offset some of the additional funding for these nutritional initiatives."

Collazo is aware that not every school district has the purchasing leverage his has. "We serve 860,000 meals a day. We have 1,400 schools. It's a lot of volume of product. [Manufacturers] realize that when they develop product for us that meets our nutritional and culinary standards, they can market it across the country." Take yogurt, for example. "The yogurt we serve now is all nonfat, but we asked [the manufacturer] to remove the high-fructose corn syrup, and they did. At first, though, they were like, ?I don't know, I don't know.' But when they started talking internally, they realized this is the way to go," Collazo says. Even if other school districts don't have the clout of the nation's biggest school system, they can benefit from the changes Collazo is instituting. "I feel good about how we can lead the charge and even influence policy at the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] level," he says.

Class project in the cafeteria
Whether you're trying to convince the government or the PTA about the merits of healthier food, an educational component is imperative. New York's Berkowitz says his district received a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to teach nutrition in the classroom using vegetable-based recipes. "We serve those in the dining room," he says, helping kids make the connection.

Gary Cuneen, executive director of Chicago-based Seven Generations Ahead, uses a multi-pronged approach. His company, which contracts with schools to provide local and organic lunches, also implements farm-to-school programs, and helps schools develop parent nights, teacher training, school gardens, food tastings and organic-farm tours. It even facilitates farmer classroom visits and farmer pen pals.

Grabowsky brings organic gardening and cooking classes to the schools. But the kids learn more than recipes: Math, culture, geography, science and language lessons all incorporate information about how the food is grown, prepared and used by the body.

Cooper estimates that 25 percent of the produce she purchases is organic or local. That alone helps kids learn about the seasonality and origins of food. In an interview in April, she said: "We have cucum?bers back on the salad bar this week. And the kids are like, ?Oh my God, the cucumbers are back!' They're excited about that." She also works with the district to develop cooking and gardening programs as part of the school curriculum.

"We just need to educate kids," Cooper says. "They really get the environmental piece, if we can tie in healthy planet, healthy soil, healthy kid." For that reason, Kimball uses 100 percent biodegradable flatware and napkins in her schools. The cafeteria trays (compartmentalized, of course, so kids don't have to deal with the horror of their foods touching) are made from bamboo, reed and grass plasma.

Winning the popularity contest
None of that matters, of course, if the kids turn up their noses at the food. "When you're 5, it's very easy to say ?I don't like that,' because you've never put it in your mouth, so we very quietly make changes," Kimball says.

Berkowitz took a similar tack initially. "We introduced a sliced apple. In the past, we sold whole apples, and kids would play baseball [with them]. Now, kids are eating it, and we're selling four times as many." Eventually, the district also introduced salad bars, and watched its vegetable order tick up. "Students are customers just like you and I—they like freshly made, clean, colorful salad bars."

That's why, when they're creating their menus, the chefs—despite elite training and years of experience—often turn to an important focus group: the kids.

"You need to go to the kids," Kimball says. "They're the clients—that's who you're trying to target. They do have an opinion, even if they're only 5." That's the key, Collazo says. "People don't talk to young people enough. You have people creating marketing campaigns sitting in an office, and they never talk to a kid."

Collazo suggests taking cues from current trends. "Look at how they market other things in pop culture." Collazo says that when his district was promoting a veggie burger, it had cool posters, showing "adolescents in very urban environments—kids with big afros and skateboards and images like that—not pictures of cows in Vermont."

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 9/p. 79-80

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