Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Making School Lunch Healthy Is Hard. Getting Kids to Love It Is Harder. This Lady Did Both.

From Mother Jones. reporter Kiera Butler, Fri. July 18, 2014  for the whole story go here.

Striding past samples of Pop Tarts and pizza and cookies, Jessica Shelly made a beeline for a booth selling individually packaged sliced fruits and veggies. She picked up a pouch of sliced peaches and let out a yelp of delight. "This could be really fabulous," she said. "I'm thinking yogurt. I'm thinking granola. I'm thinking make-your-own breakfast parfait!" She waved the peaches around in the air triumphantly. People began to give us odd looks.

Before meeting Shelly, I hadn't known it was possible to muster quite this much enthusiasm for sliced peaches. Then again, someone with any less energy probably wouldn't be able to do Shelly's job: As the director of food services for Cincinnati's public schools, she is wholly responsibly for providing nutritious breakfast, lunch, and snacks to 34,000 public school students, three-quarters of whom are on free or reduced-price meals.

Here in the exhibition hall at the annual conference of the School Nutrition Association (SNA), the group that represents the nation's 55,000 school food professionals, Shelly wasn't the only one with a tough job—all 6,500 attendees had their work cut out for them. They had to find food that would appeal to kids, otherwise it would go right from a child's tray to the garbage can. The food must be easy to prepare; some school kitchens are too small to do anything more than heat up a prepared meal. It also has to be very, very cheap. Most of the nutrition directors told me that once they pay overhead costs, they are left with only a dollar or two per student.

This month, their job got harder still. A new set of federal nutritional standards—including a requirement that students must take a fruit or vegetable with lunch and a rule that half of foods served must be composed of at least 51 percent whole grains—went into effect on July 1. Even stricter rules are coming: In 2017, the sodium limit will be further reduced. * (Read Mother Jones' Alex Park's guide to the food companies that lobbied on the new rules here.)


...Shelly has found that with a little creativity, it's possible to tempt kids to the lunchroom. Ohio tightened its nutrition standards several years ago, so Shelly has had some time to develop tricks. One winning strategy, she says, is to encourage kids to personalize their meals. She worked with her produce distributor to create affordable salad bars, where kids can load up on the veggies they like. She also installed spice stations—think ranch, lemon pepper, and hot chili—so that kids could decide how to season their food. One day a week, she invites teachers into the lunchrooms to model healthy eating. On these mentoring days, teachers eat free.

Another part of the job, she says, is marketing. She regularly asks students to score foods served in the cafeteria. When she changed the name of a sandwich from "chicken patty on a whole grain bun" to "oven baked chicken sandwich," the students scored the sandwich three points higher on average. She also made lunchrooms more inviting, ditching the long tables for booths she picked up for cheap at restaurants that were going out of business. During a conference session she led, she underscored the importance of letting parents know that healthy food was available at school. "They don't know," she said. "They think we're feeding them carnival food. They think I'm making mystery meat in the back kitchen with road kill."

Her tactics seem to be working. While the rest of the nation's lunchrooms have seen historic declines in attendance over the last few years, cafeterias in Shelly's program have actually grown more popular—and turned a $2.7 million profit.

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