A New Vision for School Lunches

Imagine: schools utilizing greenhouses and passive solar, thereby involving students in their food choices and energy needs. These designs from the Solviva website.

Imagine: schools utilizing greenhouses and passive solar, thereby involving students in their food choices and energy needs. These designs from the Solviva website.

Imagine: schools utilizing greenhouses and passive solar, thereby involving students in their food choices and energy needs. These designs from the Solviva website.

Imagine: schools utilizing greenhouses and passive solar, thereby involving students in their food choices and energy needs. These designs from the Solviva website.

Imagine: schools utilizing greenhouses and passive solar, thereby involving students in their food choices and energy needs. These designs from the Solviva website.

Imagine: schools utilizing greenhouses and passive solar, thereby involving students in their food choices and energy needs. These designs from the Solviva website.

By giving children supreme power over and involvement in their school lunches, we can help educate students in science, math, economics and health—all while doing more for the planet.

Taxpayers spent $14.8 billion on school breakfast and lunch programs in 2012. Those dollars are used to help students in low-income families access nutritional foods during school hours. The money is

paid out to more than 100,000 schools nationally in the form of cash subsidies or selected foods from the USDA to offset food costs, providing eligible students with low-cost or free meals.

School lunches must meet meal pattern and nutrition standards based on the latest DietaryGuidelines for Americans, updated every five years since the guidelines commenced in 1980. However within those parameters, school and food authorities are given the right to ultimately decide which foods will be served, and how they will be prepared. Simple economics have meant that many schools opt for things like pizza, which can be bought cheap and frozen then reheated, over anything cooked from scratch.

In fact, cuts to funding have meant that most schools no longer have the equipment in their kitchens to do anything but reheat. Many newer school kitchens were designed strictly for reheating and not for cooking.

This is crazy. This is inexcusable. This has to change.

Dig deepr. While we talk openly about calorie counts and sodium levels in school lunches, there's no official limit on how much sugar can be injected into the processed food items. And as we're learning, when we consume sugar in processed food without fiber to slow our absorption of sugars down, the sugar turns to fat—fast. (More frightening information on sugar here and here.)

Wait, there's more!

"About a quarter of the school nutrition program has been privatized," the New York Times reported, "much of it outsourced to food service management giants like Aramark, based in Philadelphia; Sodexo, based in France; and the Chartwells division of the Compass Group, based in Britain. They work intended with food manufacturers like the chicken producers Tyson and Pilgrim's, all of which profit when good food is turned to bad."

But what if there was a different way? What if we used school lunch funding to build a different system that would pay for itself in a matter of years, all the while educating children in food economics, health, science and math; and increasing attention spans, curbing behavioral problems, and improving overall health and well-being?

There is. We can do better.

There is no reason every school in American can't be growing and preparing the lion's share of its own food. From fresh greens and herbs to veggies, fish and small livestock, each school could use startup funds from the federal school lunch program to update kitchens and break ground on greenhouses attached to buildings that would provide increased air quality, passive solar heat, and all the free food the students could grow.

Imagine schools where children participate in their school lunch program by growing and raising everything consumed in the school cafeteria. Why can't we? Wouldn't that meet horticulture, biology, math, health and business requirements? Wouldn't that allow our children to be more self-sufficient, and less dependent on the hamster wheel awaiting them after graduation?

A simple aquaponics setup could satisfy science requirements while providing fresh produce (and fish!) for student consumption. This aquaponics kit is available through Kijani Grows.

A simple aquaponics setup could satisfy science requirements while providing fresh produce (and fish!) for student consumption. This aquaponics kit is available through Kijani Grows.

A few case studies:

  • On the impact of good nutrition: Appleton Central Alternative Charter High School (ACA) opened in 1996 to give individualized attention to students struggling in conventional school settings. ACA began offering physical education opportunities [and] teamed up with a local business, Natural Ovens Bakery, to offer the students a free, nutritious food. Natural Ovens sponsored the installation of a full kitchen and dining service. A Nutrition and Wellness Lab was constructed. Designed to demonstrate an integration of nutrition and physical activity, the lab includes a kitchen, dining area, exercise area and game space. Rather than eating from the vending machine or the district’s brown bags, sponsored by the National School Lunch Program, students, staff and visitors eat nutrient laden meals made daily from scratch by the cooks. These meals exceed the USDA nutrition standards and are sold for the district rate of $1.00 for breakfast and $2.50 for lunch. Students are not allowed to bring food or beverages to school. ACA staff asserts that students’ disruptive behavior and health complaints diminished substantially. Students also seemed more able to concentrate. Social Worker Deb Larson explained that a reduced amount of sugar and processed food in the students’ diets allows students’ to be more stable and that this makes mental health and anger management issues easier to manage. Teacher Mary Bruyette said she saw changes “overnight”. She noticed a considerable decrease in impulsive behaviors, such as talking out, fidgeting and the use of foul language. Complaints of headaches, stomachaches, and feeling tired also lessened. Students were no longer hungry mid- morning or mid-afternoon. ACA staff mutually feels they are able cover a greater amount of material at a more challenging level. According to Principal LuAnn Coenen, negative behaviors such as vandalism, drug and weapons violations, dropout and expulsion rates, and suicide attempts are virtually nonexistent. Accessible state reports filed on student behavior point to improved rates of attendance, suspension and truancy.
  • On making school-grown food possible: A one-acre field behind Denver Green School has been taken over by Sprout City Farms, a project devoted to "innovative urban farms on underutilized land, rooting farmers in the city and bringing good food to neighborhoods." The food grown is then sold back to the school to be served in the cafeteria. 
  • On involving children in their own health decisions: Hostos Community College in the Bronx is offering a new pilot course offering culinary classes as well as an overview of food policy, social justice, environment, health, science and business. For English, the kids study food critics like Michael Pollan and thinkers like Wendell Berry, write essays on the merits of processed versus unprocessed foods, and run their own farmers’ market on campus as part of their research. The class aims to prepare students for jobs as technicians, analysts, nutritionists and entrepreneurs in the fast-expanding food industry in the Bronx, home to the Hunts Point food markets, and elsewhere.
  • On growing their own food: In the spring of 1995, an abandoned lot next to King Middle School in California was designated as the Edible Schoolyard Berkeley garden site. Landscape architects, chefs, gardeners, and teachers were invited to share their vision of a garden where students would participate in hands-on learning. Nineteen years later, the acre of land is lush with seasonal vegetables, herbs, vines, berries, flowers, and fruit trees. Teachers and the garden staff work together to link garden experiences with students' science and humanities lessons for truly integrated experiential learning.

We can do this. This is possible. Hyper-local food production puts less of a strain on the environment while greenhouses on-site will actually improve air quality in our children's schools. Food grown is sure to not be riddled with pesticides or chemical fertilizers; and organic produce grown from seed packs a much higher nutritional punch than its generic counterparts.

Small steps have begun. New York State has been chosen to participate in a USDA Pilot Project for Unprocessed Fruits and Vegetables. The goal of the Pilot Project is to develop additional opportunities for schools to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables with entitlement funding, while using pre-existing commercial distribution channels and school relationships with growers, produce wholesalers, and distributors. The pilot supports the use of locally-grown foods in school meal programs using entitlement funds, as required by Section 4202 of the Agricultural Act of 2014 (the Farm Bill). New York farmers are encouraged to complete USDA's Vendor Application and send it in for approval, as school food authorities will only be able to procure from the approved list. 

But why not lobby science classrooms to embark on aquaponics? Why not seek out seed money for attached greenhouse structures on every school in America? Let's do away with sodium-packed, sugar-charged "food" and usher in a new era of healthy, delicious food kids will eat because they made it themselves.

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Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.