Eliminating Processed Foods in Public School Cafeterias: The New Trend

Updated June 17, 2017 |
Eliminating Processed Foods in Public School Cafeterias: The New Trend
Learn about the national trends that are replacing the public school cafeteria's mystery meat with fresh, local fruits and vegetables.
For the last several decades, public school cafeterias have been exemplified by reheated chicken nuggets, French fries, hamburgers, “mystery meat,” and a bevy of unhealthy processed foods. Thankfully, some public school students are happily making the switch to fresh foods, making processed foods on campus a phenomenon of the past.

Pilot Program in Illinois Turns Children into Fans of Fruits and Vegetables

At East Elementary School in Alton, Illinois, students sample a different fruit or vegetable every day during a designated snack time. The Chicago Tribune reports that thanks to a grant from the Produce for Better Health foundation, which administers funds distributed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, East Elementary School teachers have the opportunity to offer their students a different fruit or vegetable every day.

The program has a few basic guidelines: the food of the day is announced over the school’s public address system. The food cannot be served at breakfast or lunch. Most importantly, the produce must be fresh and in its whole state, which means it cannot come cooked, in a processed “cup,” or in the form of a juice or smoothie. The grant money cannot be used to buy dips or salsas to go with the produce.
The program, in other words, is quite simple: elementary school students sample different fruits or vegetables, which they may not have previously tried, in pure, unadorned states.  
While the practice is simple, the goals of the program are large. According to the principal of East Elementary School, participants in a pilot program in 2002 showed the remarkable benefits that can come from incorporating more fruits and vegetables into their diets, including:
West Virginia Schools Changing to Menus with Fresh, Whole Ingredients
Meanwhile, in another part of the country, elementary and high school cafeterias are restructuring their menus, shifting the focus of meals away from processed foods to “whole and fresh ingredients,” according to the West Virginia Herald-Dispatch.
Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver visited Huntington, West Virginia in the autumn of 2009 with the aim of improving school nutrition as part of a healthy eating television show he was filming. Thanks to a generous grant from a local hospital, the cooks in all 28 schools in the school district are now receiving training in the healthy menu-planning and healthy cooking changes that Oliver recommended.
D.C. Schools Serve Locally-Grown Produce to Elementary School Students
Washington D.C. schools have also joined the fresh produce trend. The Washington Post reports that12 District of Columbia elementary schools are participating in a pilot program in which students eat fresh fruit and vegetables grown within 100 miles of the city. The students enjoy the fresh produce two to three times a week during the fall and spring and at least once a week during the winter months.
Nationwide Focus on Making School Lunches Healthier
These school programs in Illinois and West Virginia are signs of an increasing nationwide awareness of the importance of providing fresh, nutritious food to students in public schools. The days when school cafeteria lunches consisted of mystery meat, a bag of artificially-flavored chips, and cup of fruit juice from concentrate may soon be coming to an end.
Those who advocate for healthier, more sustainable menus for public school lunches have much to be hopeful about:

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