Eliminating Processed Foods in Public School Cafeterias: The New Trend

Updated June 21, 2016 |
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:
       o   Reduced consumption of high-fat and high-calorie foods
       o   Increased consumption of fruits and vegetables
       o   Better attention spans
       o   Fewer visits to the school nurse
       o   Less hunger throughout the day
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:
  • Child Nutrition Act up for reauthorization – Congress is set to reexamine and possibly overhaul school nutrition programs in 2010 when it reauthorizes the Child Nutrition Act. Reuters reports that in December, 16 lawmakers filed a bill proposing that the updated Act allocate $150 million to the task of bringing more fresh produce into schools. $20 million would be allotted to schools to purchase salad bars, as well as $100 million to upgrade cafeteria equipment. $20 million in grants would be available for schools that chose to participate in a “farm to school” program to purchase fresh produce.
  • National Academy of Sciences recommendation – The National Academy of Sciences released a report in October 2009 recommending that schools increase the amount of fruits and vegetables they serve in meals, according to Reuters.
  • President Obama supports more funding for child nutrition – President Obama has made it clear that improving school children’s nutrition is a priority for his administration. The New York Times reports that that Obama added an extra $1 billion for child nutrition programs (which include school food programs) to his 2010 budget proposal.
First Lady Michelle Obama has also helped to increase national focus on school food. Her efforts to reduce childhood obesity, dubbed the Healthy Kid Initiative, focus on improving school lunches, along with increasing supports for community gardens and farmers’ markets, according to the New York Times.
It appears that 2010 may be the year when American school children begin to experience an important shift in the quality of food they are offered at school. As national concerns about obesity and educational achievement continue to loom large, such a shift will likely be welcome indeed.

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