15 Innovations Making School Lunches Healthier and More Sustainable

By Seyyada A. Burney

As summer draws to a close, it’s time for kids to go back to school. Sadly, this often means a return to terribly unhealthy school lunches filled with fried chicken, pizza pockets, sugary drinks, and high-calorie snacks. School food can  jeopardize the health and well-being of America’s next generation, but fortunately, it’s also the best place to start addressing the obesity epidemic—one in three children is obese or overweight, increasing the risks of osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and liver problems later in life. This needs to change.

Fostering healthy eating habits at a young age is critical to life-long health. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) feeds 32 million kids every year and is expanding rapidly as more families qualify for free or reduced-price meals. These lunches represent the primary source of nourishment for many children, but few schools have the facilities or the know-how to prepare fresh food—only the ability to reheat froze, processed foods high in sodium and fat. Even cafeterias that serve more fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are often forced to subsidize programs using vending machines and snack bars loaded with sugar and high fructose corn syrup due to fiscal deficits and a lack of student interest.

As kids head back to school, Nourishing the Planet outlines 15 innovative ideas and programs that are making school lunches healthier and more sustainable.

1.         Higher nutrition standards: Under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can finally set nutritional requirements for school lunches—a measure they implemented earlier this year. First Lady Michelle Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack recently unveiled new national standards for school meals—the first in fifteen years. They require daily fruit and vegetable offerings; more whole grains; only fat-free or low-fat milk; and reduced saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium in school lunches.

2.         Cooking from scratch: Contrary to past privatization and outsourcing trends, a University of Michigan study reported that privately managed cafeterias have few economic advantages. Their food options are also more likely to be processed, with higher sugar, fat, and sodium contents and relatively few fresh vegetables. In recent years, entire school districts such as Minneapolis have introduced locally sourced salad bars and have shifted to more on-site preparation in order to serve kids fresher, more nutritious food.

3.         Local produce: The national Farm to School movement connects schools to local farms specifically to serve healthy, organic meals in cafeterias. Students benefit from the fresh, nutritious, and tasty food, and state economies benefit from expanding local food networks. Drought and economic pressures are forcing many small farmers across the nation out of business but the Farm to School initiative has the potential to create billions in food sales to reinvigorate domestic agriculture.

4.         Meatless Mondays”: With the right support, weekly vegetarian meals can benefit students’ health and the environment. The Baltimore City Public School system was the first of its kind to adopt “Meatless Mondays” and supplements its meals with a wide variety of projects to encourage kids to learn about healthy, environmentally friendly choices while tasting them.

5.         Healthier snack time: Healthy vending machines packed with carrots, freshly cut fruit, smoothies, and hummus, may be a tough sell to school kids, but they are gaining momentum. Positive responses from schools in Long Island and Buffalo, NY, Philadelphia, PA, and Florence, AZ are encouraging principals and school administrators across the country to demand healthier alternatives to chips, cookies, and pretzels in their own machines. The Fresh Healthy Vending company introduced 800 machines to schools and colleges in from 2010 to 2011 and installs an additional 150 machines a month, each stocked with nutritious snacks such as fruit crisps, granola bars, and yogurts.

6.         Hydration stations: All kids deserve access to safe, clean drinking water, but many school water fountains are inoperable or unhygienic due to poor maintenance and an emphasis on for-purchase beverages. Water is a healthy alternative to sugary, calorie-laden soft drinks and fruit juices. Students in schools from California to New York now bring refillable water bottles to use at new hydration stations and water fountains thanks to a national ‘Water in Schools’ campaign and strict new guidelines in the ‘Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids’ act.

7.         International cuisine: The Center for Ecoliteracy in California recently published a cookbook introducing the “6-5-4 Lunch Matrix” for making school lunches healthier using local produce. Their training techniques and appealing menus bring the comforts of healthy, home-cooked meals into food service at public schools using a concept of six dishes students know and love; five ethnic flavor profiles, including African, Asian, Mediterranean; Latin American, and Indian flavors; and four seasons.

8.         Nutritional scoring: Sartell High School in Minnesota, and all schools in Independence, Missouri, recently adopted the NuVal nutritional scoring system in their cafeterias. Developed by an independent panel of nutrition and medical experts, NuVal assigns a score between 1 and 100, with 100 being the best, to food items based on their nutritional composition and health benefits. Participating schools now indicate NuVal scores for all ‘a la carte’ and vending machine fare.

9.         School gardens: School gardens are taking healthy, sustainable eating lessons outdoors in schools across the U.S. From Urban Sprouts’ garden and education programs in San Francisco, to the Edible Peace Patch’s vegetable patches in St. Petersburg, Florida, school gardens build a sense of environmental responsibility and awareness, and nurture community spirit. As the U.S. strives to increase high school graduation rates, the Edible Peace Patch and similar programs also show how a committed volunteer base of local college students can serve as positive role models for keeping kids in school and reducing local crime rates.

10.       Farm field trips: Immersive farm visits add a new dimension to sustainable agriculture lessons learnt in the classroom or in school gardens. Visitors to Shelburne Farms in Vermont can milk cows, harvest vegetables, tap maple, or even make their own cheese depending upon the season. These experiences promote responsibility, independence, and an awareness of food systems among students. Teachers, such as those in the Springfield school district in Oregon, regularly report that children are more willing to eat fruits and vegetables and more interested in the environment after these field trips.

11.       Healthier, non-food fund-raisers: Food oriented school fundraisers are another source of unhealthy snacks. The Health Occupation Student Association in Warren County High School, NC, traded in cookies and carbs for a healthier idea: blood pressure checks at a school basketball game. After the game they shared their results with the audience and offered advice on making healthier choices. Monte Vista Elementary School in Albuquerque, NM also replaced their annual Cake Walk with ‘Blender Bike’ fundraisers that now supply freshly blended smoothies to participants willing to ‘go the distance’.

12.       Parent-Teacher Connections: Strong parent-teacher connections are vital for creating holistic and sustainable lifestyle changes among school kids. Resources available through the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service or websites such as www.MyHealthySchool.com encourage many different types of parent and guardian involvement in healthier food initiatives, such as volunteering their time or recipes, or leading green or no-waste PTA activities and fundraisers. Teachers can also provide parents with information about how to pack healthier lunches and how to reinforce lessons in nutrition and wellness at home.

13.       Summer Lunch Programs: Almost 17 million children in America live in food-insecure households and rely on the NSLP for most, if not all for their meals— a resource that is lost during the summer when school isn’t in session. Local feeding sites supported by the USDA’s Summer Food Service Program address growing socioeconomic disparities in their communities by distributing thousands of free, healthy lunches—and a continued source of nourishment— to children and teenagers throughout the summer.

14.       Community Outreach: Community outreach and involvement is crucial for improving overall health and nutrition, sustainably. Public schools in St. Paul, MN are partnering with the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy to expand their produce market, which purchase over 165,000 pounds of produce from the area’s farms, to include the local Hmong farming community. In Syracuse, NY, local non-profit Syracuse Grows targets their community gardening projects, canning and picking workshops, and potluck events towards city’s low-income refugee population.

15.       Nationwide Initiatives: Nationwide movements such as the Farm to School and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation provide teachers, students, and parents in school districts across the country a chance to share resources and generate support for healthier school lunches. Some also offer much needed financial support along side their technical assistance, making sure that all of America’s kids are getting the nutritious food they need to excel in school.

Childhood obesity may be a growing epidemic but it’s also easily preventable. School lunches, gardens, and playgrounds play a critical role in fostering healthy eating habits and more active lifestyles. It all starts with every child’s right to a happy, prosperous, and sustainable future.

Seyyada A. Burney is a research intern with Nourishing the Planet.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE.

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