Food Safety News talks with leaders of some of the nation’s top school nutrition programs to find out what motivates kids to choose healthy food at the cafeteria.
You can lead a child to cauliflower, but can you make him eat it? Getting kids to choose wholesome foods is becoming increasingly important as schools across the country revamp their meal programs to offer more fruits and vegetables and less sugars and fats.
Schools Shape Up
Schools nationwide are stepping up to the nutrition plate. Many are now serving meals that surpass the government’s school nutrition requirements, which are low compared with current dietary recommendations. The First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign to combat childhood obesity is matching local chefs with school meal programs and establishing salad bars in 6,000 school cafeterias.
The commitment to healthier school meal programs is tangible. Food service employees from 75 percent of U.S. schools have committed to meeting the HealthierUS School Food Challenge, which outlines high nutrition standards based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine.
And better school nutrition is turning from option into policy. This January, the USDA proposed a new set of nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced lunches to 31 million children in the United States. These standards more than double the required amount of fruits and vegetables and reduce the amount of saturated fat and sodium allowed in meals.
Children Have the Choice
In light of this trend toward more balanced school lunch programs, how will schools inspire kids to eat healthy foods as they become more widely available?
After all, students still have alternatives. Many have the option of bringing a bag lunch. For those who eat school lunch, staff can’t make kids stay at the table until they finish their vegetables. And older children can simply choose not to visit the salad bar, or not to take the vegetable in the lunch line.
Food Safety News spoke with pioneers in the healthy school lunch movement to find out how they get nutritious food from the lunch line to the fork.
Vino Mitra, director of nutrition services at Oceanside Unified School District in California, found his solution in 2001 when he launched his district’s very own food brand, Lighthouse Foods, which provides healthy school foods packaged to look like their unhealthy brand counterparts. The goal is to put a commercial shine on healthy school lunches.
“We provide food that looks like it came from the outside, yet it’s healthier,” Mitra says.
For example, pizza is made with low-fat cheese, and whole-grain crust is bleached white. “It’s very low in calories and tastes good,” Mitra says of Oceanside’s food.
In addition to tweaking traditional recipes, he has also introduced many new foods into the children’s repertoires. Meat is now off the menu on “Lean and Green Mondays,” so the school has experimented with various meat substitutes.
Mitra says tamales with soy proteins called “nuggets” are very popular. He thinks the nuggets have been successful because students automatically identify the concept with chicken.
Mitra admits that masking healthy foods is a bit deceitful. “We are tricking them a little bit,” he says, but adds that it’s all in the children’s best interest: “We’re trying to provide good nutrition so they will eat it.”
And eat it they do. The capture rates of both breakfast and lunch have gone up steadily since the Lighthouse Foods was introduced, Mitra says. An average high school in his district serves 1,000 students in 15 minutes, and Mitra says higher demand is out there, but lunch periods are currently too short, a problem he is working with principals to fix.
Other school lunch experts shy away from disguising healthy food. Chef Tom French says food should be called what it is. French is the founder of Experience Food Project, a Washington non-profit that helps schools transition from buying prepared food to cooking from scratch.
“We’re not trying to fool ’em. I don’t believe in that. They need to learn what they’re eating. They need to know what it looks like,” says French.
French says his program works to make all food simple and identifiable.
Students as Menu Consultants
So how does French get students to eat his food? He says student input is crucial. French’s program conducts regular tasting panels with students to get their feedback on menus.
“With the older kids, you really have to market to them. We take suggestions, we have focus groups, we have tasting groups,” French says, “Because you can either take it or not.”
Another school nutrition program that sets store by taste testing is Fairfax County School District in Virginia, this year’s “best nutrition program” winner, according to the School Nutrition Association.
“Nothing goes on the menu unless it’s passed a student taste party,” says Penny McConnell, the district’s Director of Food and Nutrition Services. Taste parties are conducted monthly for younger students and once a year for elected high school officers.
Fairfax’s nutrition program managers also go out into lunchrooms each month to survey children. Not only do they collect feedback on school lunches, they also record what food children are bringing from home.
And back at Oceanside, while much of the healthy food Mitra offers comes in an already-familiar form, he also has to work for student approval when he introduces new meals, or new veggies to the salad bar. He says food selections that routinely land in the trash can at the end of lunch get nixed from the menu–a menu that won this year’s “Best Menu,” according to the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine.
“I have introduced many foods they have not liked,” he says, “but I will not give up. I will keep on introducing food until they like it.”
Another form of perseverance that pays off is offering children a new food repeatedly until they become familiar with it. Studies have shown that children take to new foods only after being exposed to them 10-15 times.
McConnell says that when Fairfax first introduced jicama, the kids rejected it, but once it was accompanied by dip and served again and again, students began to take to it.
Mitra introduced his vegetarian tamales repeatedly before kids began to report enjoying them.
Experts stress that a key component of getting kids to choose healthy is teaching them the value of eating right. This approach is especially important with younger kids. As with any learning, the earlier it takes place, the more likely it is to stick.
French’s Experience Food Project has developed 13 classroom enrichment programs, all of which meet Washington State’s curriculum requirements, so that they cover both nutrition and subject areas teachers are required to teach.
French says that as important as marketing healthy food is to older students, education is crucial when it comes to elementary and middle schoolers.
Mitra has noticed the same thing. “You tell first graders milk is good for their bones, and they take it as their mantra,” he says.
Mitra is also developing software that students can use to calculate calories while standing in the lunch line. He says the program will tell students out loud if they need more fruits and vegetables, more calories in general, or if they’ve made an unhealthy choice.
Mitra adds that the public nature of the program could offer an added bonus: If students know others can hear their feedback, they might be motivated to make a healthier choice to avoid embarrassment.
Or maybe they’ll choose well to impress a classmate. Mitra imagines a boy’s reaction after getting his nutrition feedback: “I got such bad food and maybe I shouldn’t get that because a girl is watching.”
In Virginia, McConnell uses education as a multi-pronged weapon against bad eating habits. Her district educates kids and parents alike, sending out a monthly nutrition newsletter to reinforce what kids learn in the classroom. Finally, she says, “the cafeteria complements what they have learned” in these other settings.
Finally, just as restaurants get stars for plating, school nutrition experts say cafeteria food gets credit for presentation.
“Children, especially the little ones, eat with their eyes,” McConnell says.
Mitra clearly subscribes to this principle, as he has branded his food with an eye toward appearance, and French espouses a similar theory. This author recently had the opportunity to try French’s school food, which was simply presented and rich in color and variety.
Further information on each of these three school food programs can be found on their websites at the following addresses:
Experience Food Project: http://www.experiencefoodproject.org/
Fairfax County: http://www.fcps.edu/fs/food/food_at_school/
Mitra says that when fellow nutrition program leaders call him for advice, he jokes, “The menu is on the website. All you have to do is copy it.”