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.
But there's also hesitation. Jacobsen suggested that the district needs to be careful to ensure that it's "follow[ing] the right guidelines when you're feeding children."
When asked whether it was feasible to reduce the amount of processed food in school meals, Jacobsen replied, "I don't know at this point." She cited the lack of variety in raw proteins available as commodities, which emphasizes the district's reliance on the commodity program.
Jacobsen estimated that 70 percent of the Bettendorf district's entrées are pre-made, and the remainder of the meals are freshly made in the district's one production kitchen. Pasta dishes, for example, use freshly made sauces based on commodity tomato paste.
But while there have been fresh-food additions, the menus have remained largely static. "The meals themselves -- we do not change those" much, Jacobsen said. "Those have been the same ... for years."
In addition to concern about meeting nutrition guidelines, Jacobsen said the menus need to be accepted by students. "Student preference -- what are popular menus with the children to keep our participation up?"
O'Tool argued that although students might balk at new menu items at first, they'll get used to them. "I don't believe that [students will reject fresh food long-term] at all," she said. "Especially when we're starting at elementary age. It does take time. You don't learn to read in a day; you don't teach math in a week. You've got to introduce the stuff repeatedly over a 90-day period, and kids will start to eat it."
Money is another barrier, and Schutte said it's a significant one. Most school-lunch services try to be self-sufficient, but "we still wind up having to subsidize ... from our general fund," he said. And he doesn't believe that Bettendorf can raise its school-meal prices, which are "pretty much at the top of this area." The number of free or reduced-price meals in the district has doubled in the past decade, and he said "I think it would be a real challenge" to raise prices.
Barring increased federal or state funding or higher prices, the district would need to allocate additional general-fund money for meals if costs rise because of a shift to fresher foods. School lunches, then, would be competing with teacher salaries and other education essentials for funding. "I think there would be resistance to it, because the goal is always for those food programs to be self-sufficient," Schutte said.
Tammy Stotts, marketing specialist with the Agricultural Diversification & Market Development Bureau of the Iowa Department of Agriculture & Land Stewardship, conceded that fresher meals made with local ingredients can be more expensive. But a state farm-to-school designation could bring up to $5,000 in grant funding, and O'Tool said other organizations offer money to assist with transitions to healthier school meals.
Stotts also said there's often reticence within a school district's administration. She noted a recent meeting with more than 50 food directors, many of whom thought a shift toward fresher meals would take too much time, require too much work, and cost too much money.
"The food-service director and administration ... -- they have to be supportive," she said. "It is a little bit of extra work."
But, she added, "if there's a will, there's a way." And while the fresh commodity offerings aren't robust, they are available.
She added that there's growing interest across the state in farm-to-school programs. If more money was available, she said, the state could easily double school participation. "In the beginning, it was kind of like twisting someone's arm to get them to consider it," she said.
"We All Thought You Were the Devil"
Iowa has nine state-registered farm-to-school chapters (http://www.Agriculture.Atate.IA.us/AgDiversification/chapterInitiative.asp), and their programs range from modest to comprehensive. Many schools provide fresh fruits and vegetables as snacks; other schools have committed to purchase locally sourced foods for school lunches -- including milk, eggs, meats, and breads -- in addition to fresh produce.
"Nine schools in Iowa have done this," O'Tool said. "The wheel doesn't need to be reinvented."
The ABC show Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution (which ran in March and April) showed the celebrity chef trying to change the eating habits of one of the United States' unhealthiest communities: Huntington, West Virginia. The show's Web site includes a two-week menu planner with recipes for school lunches. ("Cooked from scratch with fresh ingredients by the lunch ladies, they meet school meal nutrition standards and the local budget.")
But the best example for local districts might be Augustana College. While it is undoubtedly a different institution -- a private college with a smaller, older, and presumably more-receptive age demographic -- it had many of the food-preparation habits that make school lunches less than nutritionally ideal.
"When I got here [in 2007], they were using all processed foods -- pre-made entrées, frozen soups, frozen vegetables, Potato Pearls ... ," Griffith said. "It's convenient. It's easy to get a consistent product. ... I think the mindset is: That's the way that we have to do things."
Griffith concedes that there are capacity issues in the local agricultural system because production is geared to corn for ethanol production and animal feed, and to soybeans. "We import 95 percent of our food in flippin' Illinois and Iowa," he said.
And there is often resistance from the agricultural community -- that same status-quo inertia that one sees in school districts.
When he talked to 30 farmers at a local growers' meeting in January 2008, "all of them had a glazed look in their eyes and thought I was crazy except one," he said. "A lot of them were very suspicious."
But that meeting was the beginning of a relationship with Jim Johansen of Wesley Acres Produce in Milan, and that led to other relationships with local farmers.
Augustana started in 2008 with local lettuces, tomatoes, and other produce -- "as much as we could bring in," Griffith said.
He said he told his staff: "We're going to do scratch cooking." The only allowed frozen vegetables would be peas and kernel corn. All soups and sauces would be freshly made. They would roast and slice their own meats.
When we talked last week, Griffith said he was getting 50 pounds of asparagus, 13 pounds of lettuce, and fresh green onions that day -- the beginning of the growing season. He estimated that Augustana this year will probably buy $200,000 in locally grown or raised food.
It wasn't an easy sell. He relates with a laugh that one staff person told him: "We all thought you were the devil."
But even though Griffith said he was "prepared to ask forgiveness rather than permission," he had supportive bosses, and dining staff, students, and college faculty have come around. More faculty and staff are eating on campus, and the amount of money given back to students for unused meals dropped $90,000 in one year.
"When students get fresh vegetables ... , when they get real mashed potatoes, they notice a difference," Griffith said.
And he said food and labor costs have actually gone down by several hundred thousand dollars. "You pay for convenience," he said. "Convenience costs money." (Because of the food they receive from the federal government, it's highly unlikely school districts would see cost savings -- unless there are significant changes to the commodity program.)
Griffith said he's willing to assist any local school district that wants to move away from processed foods. He's worked with O'Tool (through Progressive Action for the Common Good) on approaching the Bettendorf schools.
"He is a great example of what can be done," O'Tool said.
"We just have to be patient and get one [public] school that can be a model," Griffith said. "I know there's a lot of interest. I think people just don't know how to do it. ... I know it can work."