“I bring my lunch to school every day because the school food is pretty disgusting,” Nick Hilliard, a senior at Apopka High School in Florida, told high school reporter Rachel Armstrong.
“If you’re willing to spend some money, you can have a well-balanced meal,” said a senior from Portland, Oregon, in her school newspaper.
“A lot of the food is oily. It doesn’t look good,” said a sophomore at California’s Oakland Tech, as quoted in her high school paper.
There’s little argument, from any corner, that school food needs to be better—more nutritious, more thoughtfully produced, tastier, and yet still accessible to the 32 million kids served by the National School Lunch program. High school journalists from across the country, whose stories I’ve quoted above, explored the issue this year as part of the first Healthy and Sustainable School Food Journalism Awards, sponsored by the Earth Day Network, the Epstein-Roth Foundation, the UC-Berkeley School of Journalism, and the Edible Schoolyard Project.
Most of the young journalists hit on the crux of the matter. Serving a healthy lunch to millions of schoolchildren, every day, is a highly regulated—and woefully underfunded—endeavor. Schools, no matter how good their intentions, face a number of barriers when trying to improve their food; not merely cost but operational issues, such as complex government reimbursements for food purchases, and infrastructure issues, such as outdated and outgrown kitchens.
But there’s good news at last on the school food front. Despite these hurdles, many schools are finding innovative ways to make school food healthier and more sustainable wherever they can. And parents, kids, and local farms and businesses can work with school districts to help make it happen.
Last fall, the Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves 650,000 meals a day, adopted a Good Food Purchasing Policy, designed to encourage the purchase of more nutritious, local, sustainable, and fairly produced foods. (NRDC helped design these groundbreaking criteria, the first of their kind.) When a major food buyer adopts guidelines like these, it not only helps ensure that kids have access to healthier foods in school—it also helps support local farmers and producers who run sustainable operations, which are less polluting than factory farms and chemically-intensive industrial agriculture.
Los Angeles Unified schools, as of February, have also stopped serving meat in the cafeteria on Mondays, in an effort to encourage kids to eat more plant-based proteins. And PS 244 in Flushing, New York, recently became the first public school in New York City, if not the country, to serve an entirely vegetarian menu. Going meatless will not only improve students’ health by reducing the risk of cancer, heart disease, and diabetes—it’s also good for the environment. The meat industry worldwide generates nearly 20 percent of man-made global warming pollution. According to the Environmental Working Group, if everyone in the country skipped eating meat and cheese once a week for a year, we would reduce global warming pollution by the equivalent of taking 7 million cars off the road.
Chicago public schools have made great strides in serving better meat in cafeterias. The majority of Chicago schools now offer freshly cooked chicken drumsticks, from birds raised without antibiotics on Amish farms in Indiana. Serving freshly cooked rather than reheated food is in itself a major improvement for Chicago schools. And by making large purchases from farmers who raise antibiotic-free chicken, the school system is helping preserve the effectiveness of medically important antibiotics. The vast majority of poultry and livestock operations regularly dose healthy animals with antibiotics, making these potentially life-saving drugs less effective when they’re truly needed, by humans or animals.
St. Paul, Minnesota, started a similar program to buy antibiotic-free chicken before Chicago’s—it could prove to be a model for other school districts, large and small, to bring healthier foods to school children, as well as help preserve essential medicines.
Connecting schools with suppliers of antibiotic-free meat makes good business sense, too. Suppliers of antibiotic-free poultry usually sell more popular cuts, like chicken breast, to grocery stores and restaurants at a good markup, but are often left looking for buyers for less popular cuts like drumsticks. A chicken drumstick just happens to be the exact portion size of protein required by federal school food nutrition standards. So caterer Chartwells-Thompson, which supplies food for about two-thirds of Chicago city schools, was able to meet nutritional guidelines with fresh, antibiotic-free chicken legs while paying just “a couple of pennies more per portion,” they told the Chicago Tribune, than they would for processed chicken nuggets.
In New York City, NRDC is working directly with the New York City Schools to advise them on sustainable purchasing practices. This work is tied to the larger efforts of the newly created Urban School Food Alliance—a group of six of the largest school districts in the nation that are looking to use their joint purchasing power to bring down the costs of sustainable foods. These schools serve almost 3 million meals per day --more than 800,000 in New York City alone — so the opportunity to boost sustainable foods in the nation's schools is enormous.
Since 2004, New York City public schools have been offering more nutritious menus for students, including fresh fruit at breakfast and lunch. Recently, the City has started introducing more whole grains, as per the government’s new nutrition standards for school food, replacing white bread with whole wheat bread, and offering whole grain pasta; it has also installed more than 1,000 salad bars in city schools. About 14 percent of city school foods come from local produce and dairy vendors, including organic yogurt from Stonyfield Farms.
Getting healthier food into school cafeterias is a massive but necessary undertaking. Improving school food is essential to kids’ health, as well an important part of the larger battle to fix our dysfunctional food system. The new nutritional standards being phased in this year by the USDA are a good start, cutting back on fat and salt and increasing portions of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. But schools, aided and prodded by parents and kids alike, need to find ways to make these standards work in their own cafeterias.
Try reaching out to your school’s food service manager to get a better idea of the challenges they face in improving school lunches, and where you might find opportunities for improvement. Pay a visit to your school cafeteria and find out for yourself what’s being served to your kids. There might be a salad bar, but can the first graders reach it? What exactly is in those hot dogs? Is the first ingredient in that dipping sauce high fructose corn syrup? Advocacy group PEACHSF has a solid, practical collection of how-to guides for parents on school lunch reform. You can also check out the Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann Cooper, whom I met at the TED-X Manhattan conference earlier this year, and her Lunch Box toolkit.
Raising awareness of where our food comes from, and how it’s made, as these award-winning high school journalists have done, is also an essential part of improving school lunches and helping kids eat healthier. As the contest’s third-place winner, Aditi Busgeeth, of Houston’s Alief Taylor High, said: “Sustainability is truly within reach, and school lunches are a progressive first step toward a healthier and environmentally aware generation of Americans.”