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Feeding Young Minds: Making School Lunches Fresher (and More Local) Isn’t Easy, But It Can Be Done PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 13 May 2010 05:04

When Jodee O'Tool's son entered kindergarten in the Bettendorf Community School District in 2008, she was troubled by the meals the school offered.

"I started looking at the menu," she said. "I am in the field of nutrition, so that's something that's important to me.

"It's mostly processed food," she said. "Not much fresh food. ... A lot of it is hot dogs. ... A lot of chicken nuggets. Fried food ... ."

The Bettendorf elementary menu for May is a good illustration. The 20 lunches include three meals anchored by chicken nuggets, one with popcorn chicken, and one with a breaded chicken patty. One entrée is a hot dog; another is breaded mozzarella sticks.

On the fresh side are days with orange wedges, bananas, apple slices, watermelon wedges, grapes, celery sticks, "carroteenies," and freshly made salads.

While these meals meet federal nutrition standards, O'Tool said they're not particularly good for students overall. And she's trying to change the way the Bettendorf Community School District feeds its children.

"It's All Schools' Problem"

O'Tool stressed that school-meal nutrition is a national challenge with many roots. A key issue, she said, is government commodities. "The schools get a bunch of free food from the government, and that's what the kids get," she said. "And that's the problem. It's not Bettendorf's problem; it's all schools' problem. It's a part of how the system is set up."

Systemic changes are possible on a national level. The Child Nutrition Act expires on September 30, and many nutrition advocates are pushing for enhanced nutrition standards and funding for school-meal programs in the reauthorization.

The April report "Too Fat to Fight: Retired Military Leaders Want Junk Food Out of America's Schools" pressed for "meaningful increases in the school-lunch funding so that ... schools will have enough funding to make their meals more nutritious and more inviting for all children. Otherwise, children will not learn the crucial lesson that healthful meals can also be appetizing. Improvements in the quality of school meals are needed, and that requires funding. [The Journal of the American Dietetic Association] concluded that 'given the serious and persistent budget constraints many school food-service administrators face, it is not surprising that fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are not offered daily. The fact is that fresh fruits and vegetables and whole-grain products cost more.' Funding to equip and train food-service professionals with the means to prepare more nutritious and appealing meals is also necessary."

Bettendorf Community School District Superintendent Theron J. Schutte said that national and state resources are essential because of local financial limitations. "It's helpful for schools when ... it's being pushed at the state level as well as the federal level in order to accomplish that," he said. "Because then some onus is on those two entities to help school districts cover those costs."

But O'Tool isn't waiting for action from Congress; she's pushing for the Bettendorf schools to improve their school lunches. Schutte said he expects that O'Tool will be given the opportunity to make a presentation to the district's wellness committee or a district finance subcommittee in the fall.

O'Tool and a few other parents began circulating a petition last year that has so far garnered roughly 100 signatures, she said; it has not yet been submitted to the school district. "It is our belief that many of the choices provided could be healthier and more nutritional ... ," the petition reads. "We ... call on Bettendorf schools to evaluate, research, and implement changes to the schools' breakfast and lunch menus. We believe there is a strong correlation between nutrition and performance, and in choosing to serve healthy foods that are low in fat, salt, and sugar, we can have a positive impact on our children's performance. Quality foods including fresh fruits and vegetables should be the basis of all school meals, eliminating processed and artificial additives when possible." The petition also pushes for implementation of a farm-to-cafeteria program.

O'Tool said she would like to see the district start with a pilot project at one school, generating a groundswell of support for district-wide changes. "The parents [of children at other schools] are going to want it," she said. "The other schools are going to want it."

Her hope is that shifting meals from processed toward fresh and freshly made will also create an opportunity for local farmers to get in the school-lunch game. Augustana College in the past few years has made the shift to all-scratch cooking and now gets roughly 20 percent of its food from local agricultural providers.

"I have no doubt you can make it work" for local school districts, said Augustana Director of Dining & College Center Garry Griffith.

"A Little Bit of Extra Work"

Commodities offered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture can be a serious problem. "The commodities that we receive help hold our cost down," said Bettendorf Director of Food Service Cindy Jacobsen.

But those commodities are heavy with processed food. The current commodities list includes 27 varieties of canned, dry, or frozen fruit, and five varieties of fresh. There are 38 varieties of canned, dry, or frozen vegetables, and five varieties of fresh -- all potatoes.

Other obstacles facing school districts in offering healthier, fresher meals -- cost, facilities, culture -- also loom large.

"There are a lot of challenges," Schutte said. "Some of them are bureaucratic. Some of them are financial in nature. Some of them are changing cultures of communities and families. It's a lot easier to sell at school if the same beliefs are held at home."

There are already positive signs in Bettendorf with school meals. Jacobsen said the school district has long offered fresh fruits with its lunches, and a few years ago introduced spinach to include in romaine salads. "We do fresh fruit as much as we can," she said. "We do have to watch the out-of-season prices."

She said she's also working with her food providers -- including Loffredo Fresh Produce Company -- to identify locally grown produce, so that menus can note when items come from the Quad Cities area. She said she hopes to begin doing that in the fall.

And Bettendorf, with the other school districts in Scott County, is working to establish a farm-to-school program through the State of Iowa. Jacobsen said that in recent weeks she's e-mailed the Scott County farm bureau, the county extension service, and the state about procuring local produce.