Kid’s menu: Schools offer healthier options

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Both city and county schools have made pushes to incorporate healthier options at meals. Photo: Tom McGovern Both city and county schools have made pushes to incorporate healthier options at meals. Photo: Tom McGovern

It’s 3:30pm on a Tuesday at Jackson Via Elementary School, and students as young as 5 are biting into fresh Pink Lady apples twice the size of their hands, nodding to one another in approval. They enthusiastically drain small cups of locally pressed apple cider, and several kids raise their hands to ask for a second helping of salad greens. Bags of chips go unnoticed in the corner of the classroom as kids in the after-school program munch contentedly during a presentation by the Local Food Hub about fresh fruits and vegetables.

Local Food Hub Communications Director Laura Brown leads a short discussion with the group, asking questions such as “Who likes eating salad?” and “Who’s picked apples before?” The whole apples and cups of cider were, not surprisingly, more popular among the 5- to 9-year-old critics than the servings of spring mix grown on a small farm in Louisa. The group’s interest in the produce ranged from thrilled to cautiously curious, and while thoughtfully chewing her apple, a small second-grader wearing a zip-up sweater covered in hearts says to her friend, “I want to see what the lettuce tastes like, whatever it is.”

School lunch at Monticello High School. Photo: Tom McGovern
School lunch at Monticello High School. Photo: Tom McGovern

Albemarle County Schools

Students: 13,730

Lunch: $2.40 K-5; $2.65 6-12

Main vendor: Richmond Restaurants

Food locally sourced: 5 percent

Annual budget: $5,528,000

You got served:

31,000 lunches each week

10,000 breakfasts each week

3,900 tons of chicken each year

2,300 tons of cheese each year

 At least one student charges to the trash can at the front of the room in a dramatic display of disapproval after she bites a dime-sized piece off a single leaf of lettuce, and a few kids wrinkle their noses at the salad cups. But, for the most part, reviews of that afternoon’s snack are overwhelmingly positive, and these elementary school students don’t seem to be missing their chips and juice boxes. 

“There’s all this baloney about kids not liking the tastes of these foods, and I don’t see that at all,” says Local Food Hub Executive Director Kristen Suokko, who oversees year-round programming with the area schools such as the presentation at Jackson Via. “We do a lot of demonstrations and taste tests, teaching kids about what they’re eating. When we do these things in the schools kids are enthusiastic. It’s so eye-opening and so gratifying.”

The City Schoolyard Garden began at Buford Middle School in 2012. Since then the program has expanded to all six city elementary schools, including Burnley-Moran. Photo: Our Local Commons
The City Schoolyard Garden began at Buford Middle School in 2012. Since then the program has expanded to all six city elementary schools, including Burnley-Moran. Photo: Our Local Commons

The Local Food Hub, which functions as a link between small farms and the institutional wholesale marketplace, has a mission to make fresh food “as accessible as possible to as many people as possible.” The organization has developed a close relationship with public schools, and events like the one at Jackson Via are part of an ongoing effort to make healthy foods both available and appealing to kids in the area. The Local Food Hub connects city and county schools with area produce, but Suokko notes it can be tough to find affordable options for the schools without short-changing the farmers. Sysco is the largest vendor for the city school system, according to city schools Community Relations Liaison Beth Cheuk, but it tries to source as many local products as possible, about 20 percent of the total. The school system uses Standard Produce and Cavalier Produce, Flowers Baking Company for bread, and its milk is locally sourced through PET Dairy.

As a result of federal programming, new nutrition regulations, school gardens and the ever-growing local food movement, organizations like the Local Food Hub and public school systems are paying close attention to what kids are eating, where that food is coming from and how to connect healthier options to young people in a way that’s both affordable and appealing. Both the Charlottesville and Albemarle County school systems started making changes such as removing deep-fryers from the cafeterias about six years ago, but those responsible for feeding kids in the area say there’s still plenty of progress to be made.

“We put a lot of energy into programming and trying to get local food into the community, particularly to underserved populations,” Suokko says. “It really starts with kids.”

In 2010, first lady Michelle Obama rolled out the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which provides funding and allowed the USDA to reform the National School Lunch Program for the first time in decades. As of 2012, the NSLP requires schools across the county to upgrade nutritional standards in the cafeteria by limiting milks to nonfat and 1 percent, making whole-grain items, fruits and vegetables more available and reducing sodium levels in food. Critics of the regulations worry that the healthier options are not only too expensive but will produce more waste because students who are used to French fries and white-flour pasta may turn their noses up at the healthier options and throw their food away.

Charlottesville schools Health and PE Coordinator Patrick Johnson says adults need to get on the students level and present health and nutrition in a way they'll be receptive to--especially for high-schoolers. Photo: Tom McGovern
Charlottesville schools Health and PE Coordinator Patrick Johnson says adults need to get on the students level and present health and nutrition in a way they’ll be receptive to–especially for high-schoolers. Photo: Tom McGovern

Charlottesville City Schools

Students: 4,132

Lunch: $2.25 K-8; $2.50 9-12

Main vendor: Sysco

Food locally sourced: 20 percent

Annual budget: $2,031,116

You Got Served:

10,500 lunches each week

7,350 breakfasts each week

528,082 cartons of milk each year

$123,019 spent on bread each year

Charlottesville and Albemarle schools now offer more fruits and vegetables (fresh and canned), the ever-popular pizza features whole-grain crust and low-fat cheese, and the nutrition directors try to incorporate at least one “from scratch” menu item each week. School officials say that, for the most part, students have responded positively, but they don’t deny that there are challenges.

“There are just a lot of constraints,” Suokko says, citing financial cost and students’ lack of exposure to healthy foods at home as some of the obstacles. “You’ve also got kitchen personnel who, through no fault of their own, may have never been given the training to use or prepare fresh foods. But I think our schools are doing a pretty good job of trying to address those challenges, and there are a lot of organizations like ours that are all trying to help.”

Monticello High School Food Service Manager Steve Van Epp says although the focus has switched to serving healthy foods, he and his staff still have to prepare food quickly and time can be a constraint. Photo: Tom McGovern
Monticello High School Food Service Manager Steve Van Epp says although the focus has switched to serving healthy foods, he and his staff still have to prepare food quickly and time can be a constraint. Photo: Tom McGovern

There’s also the limitation of time. School food service managers prepare meals for hundreds of kids each day, and serving institutional food in a way that’s healthy takes more time. Cafeteria meals used to look a lot like fast food: greasy French fries (which Monticello High School Food Service Manager Steve Van Epp maintains tasted better than McDonald’s), deep-fried chicken nuggets, premade burgers on white buns.

“We used to use the same techniques as fast-food restaurants,” an apron-clad Van Epp says as he eyes the mob of students ready to load their plates on Taco Tuesday. “Now the regulations have changed, but we still have to prepare food fast.”

Now that the deep fryers and items like ice cream, sodas and full-fat chips (baked chips are available in some cafeterias) have been removed from the menus, the school nutrition departments are emphasizing variety.

“Kids like having a choice,” says city schools Nutrition Coordinator Sandra Vazquez, who works with the schools’ food service managers to plan menus. “We’ve got such a diverse group of students, and they want to choose what they’re eating.”

Custom-made salads, for example, give the city’s elementary students and middle-schoolers that choice. Students have the option of filling out Salad Sensations order forms in the morning, customizing a salad with protein options of turkey, ham and hard-boiled egg, shredded cheese and veggies like carrots, green peppers and cucumbers. Their salads will then be prepared and waiting for them in the cafeteria at lunchtime, and, according to the order form, students must also take a roll and a fruit to complete the meal. A similar setup in the county schools allows high school students to choose from a selection of salad toppings in the lunch line, and Cale Elementary provides a different entrée salad each day, which Food Service Manager Heather Brown says has been surprisingly popular with the younger students. Students get excited to see bright, fresh Southwestern and Asian chicken salads on the line.

“It’s a matter of making the food appealing to them,” Brown says. She points to a clear to-go container on the line packed with things like orange slices, string cheese, yogurt and a Nutri-Grain bar. “It’s got to be fresh and colorful. They love finger foods and variety.”

The smallest details can make all the difference when it comes to appealing to young children, like the maraschino cherries she added to the now-popular cups of fruit cocktail.

Food service providers agree that it’s also crucial to present the healthier options in a way that will appeal to kids, and what works for a first-grader may not necessarily work for a 10th-grader.

Every month, elementary students in the city get to taste something new through the Harvest of the Month, a garden-to-table snack program in collaboration with City Schoolyard Garden and Local Food Hub. Volunteers deliver trays with samples of a freshly harvested fruit or vegetable for teachers to pass out in the classroom, plus coordinating lessons and send-home fliers. Kids as young as kindergarten taste and answer trivia questions about items such as radishes, asparagus, white peaches and Asian pears. The radishes were by far the least popular item, but Vazquez says the baked kale chips were a hit.

The Local Food Hub brought in Pink Lady apples, fresh apple cider and locally grown salad greens for students at Jackson Via Elementary to taste recently. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto
The Local Food Hub brought in Pink Lady apples, fresh apple cider and locally grown salad greens for students at Jackson Via Elementary to taste recently. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

National School Lunch Program guidelines

Fruit: 2.5 to 5 cups per week

Vegetables: 3.75 to 5 cups per week

Grains: 8 to 12 ounces per week (50 percent whole grains)

Meat/alternate: 8 to 12 ounces per week

Milk: 5 cups per week

Calories: 500 to 850 per day

Saturated fat: less than 10 percent of total calories

Sodium: 640 to 740 milligrams per day

“There’s no dessert, which is disappointing,” says Anabel Granger, a sixth-grader at Walker Upper Elementary who often buys her lunch in the cafeteria. She says she enjoyed working in her elementary school garden, and “I liked eating the sweet peas.”

On the high school level, it can be a little more challenging to get students on board with eating what’s healthy rather than just what tastes good, especially because they’re old enough to make their own decisions, both in and outside of school.

“I know they’ve been trying to make it healthier,” says Monticello High School 12th-grader David Mayes, who says the high school cafeteria food is far superior to what he ate in middle school. “I like that the chicken is whole meat instead of processed, and tacos on Tuesday.”

Mayes runs track and says his coaches constantly remind the team to keep their sport in mind when they’re choosing lunches and snacks. He says he wouldn’t eat pizza before a track meet, and he’s glad to have options such as made-to-order deli sandwiches and hummus platters available in the cafeteria.

But most teenagers tend to be stuck in their ways, says Charlottesville schools Health and PE Coordinator Patrick Johnson. To combat this, he says adults need to get on the students’ level and present health and nutrition in a way that they’ll be receptive to. Also a football coach, Johnson sees a lot of student-athletes take their health more seriously than their less physically active peers. Even so, he sees at least one team member arrive to practice slurping a McDonald’s drink on a daily basis. He understands the convenience factor of fast food. When students are already bogged down with SOLs, grades and extracurriculars and they have to spend half of their 30-minute lunch period meeting with teachers or project groups, it’s undeniably easier to grab a slice of pizza than a salad or entrée.

Photo: Our Local Commons
Photo: Our Local Commons

Johnson says his own two daughters attend Burnley-Moran Elementary and order salads for lunch most days, and as a parent it’s refreshing to know his kids have that option. And from what he’s seen in different school systems, simply taking away the junk food and replacing it with a variety of healthier options can make all the difference. 

“I just moved here from Seattle, and in our district, if kids didn’t have breakfast, they would buy a Honey Bun and Sprite from the vending machines,” he says. “I think access to it is what usually drives it, and just taking away that access makes a big difference.”

Johnson also leads the Student Health Advisory Board meetings, which focus on student health priorities. SHAB members include students, teachers, parents, health care professionals and community agencies, and the board’s role is to advise the Charlottesville City School Board on student health- related policies and programs.

At last month’s meeting, school nutrition was on the short list of things to discuss. Board members raised several concerns, such as students being rewarded with food for good behavior, after-school snacks like Doritos and too many sugary cereals in the cafeteria lines at breakfast. Johnson reminded the group that it can only realistically take on so much at a time; members settled on addressing the cereal situation first. SHAB members agreed that sweet cereals such as Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Lucky Charms don’t align with the new healthy strides the schools have been making. The board hopes to replace those with whole-grain-based options such as Cheerios and Kix. The current breakfast offerings do meet government standards, Johnson says, but the committee will do research on what cereal is currently available and work with nutrition services to see if it can make adjustments.

Suokko doesn’t buy the notion that kids are inherently picky and disinterested in foods that are good for them. The enthusiasm around in-school snacks such as plum slices and new cafeteria menu items like vegetable stir-fry and freshly made black bean salsa suggest that kids may be more open-minded than we give them credit for. But there’s more behind getting kids to eat healthy than simply sticking a bowl of fruit on a cafeteria tray and swapping out regular chicken patties for the whole-grain breaded variety. That’s where organizations such as City Schoolyard Garden and the PB&J Fund come in, and roll nutrition and education into hands-on, kid-friendly lessons.

Monticello High School. Photo: Tom McGovern
Monticello High School. Photo: Tom McGovern

“Research has shown that kids who grow their own food are more likely to eat it and try new things,” says City Schoolyard Garden Executive Director Jeanette Abi-Nader.

The organization began with an intensive gardening program at Buford Middle School in 2012, and quickly expanded to include gardens at all six city elementary schools. By the time they get to middle school, all students have had the opportunity to get their hands dirty planting and harvesting crops, and Abi-Nader says each garden has evolved to “have the character and personality of that particular school and community.”

Student response to the gardens over the past four years has been overwhelmingly positive, and Abi-Nader says kids are walking away with a newfound appreciation for gardening and nutrition, plus they’re developing confidence “that comes from doing hard work together.” The work that City Schoolyard Garden does is “the fun stuff,” she says, but the real struggle is bringing these lessons and new skills home. It’s one thing to get a fourth-grader excited about growing potatoes and making carrot-top pesto at school, but a lot of these kids go home to SpaghettiOs and frozen pizza.

“It’s sort of an easy thing to turn kids on to food in the moment,” Abi-Nader says. “It’s creating structures that allow them to have healthy choices in the long run that creates more challenges.”

The PB&J Fund, a local nonprofit, addresses nutrition outside of the classroom by combining nutrition, food safety, math and culinary skills into after-school cooking classes for kids.

“The school lunch regulations are always changing,” says PB&J Fund Program Director Alicia Cost, a registered dietitian who worked as a school nutrition director for years. “So here, we’re getting back to scratch cooking and we don’t have the government regulations.”

On a typical Wednesday afternoon, about a dozen apron-clad middle school students are milling around the Market Street kitchen space, consulting recipes and taking turns stirring whatever’s simmering on the stove. The kids are there because they want to be, and they’re just as enthusiastic about eating as they are about cooking.

Photo: Our Local Commons
Photo: Our Local Commons

“I like getting the taste of other cultures,” says seventh-grade Buford student Ryan Doherty, who’s been attending PB&J Fund after-school classes and summer camps for three years. “This club is really fun, really different. We get to make food going at our own pace, and the people are here to help you, not babysit you.”

Cost and her staff want Doherty and his peers to feel a sense of ownership over what they’re creating, and she says it’s crucial to establish a safe environment where kids are willing to go outside their comfort zone and try something new.

“We always get to know them and pick recipes that reflect where they are. We talk with them and we then start stretching the recipes to stretch their taste buds,” Cost says, adding that if she hasn’t yet built that trust with her students, an overambitious recipe that they don’t like could deter them from the class. “A lot of times we’ll do taste-testing before trying a new recipe because we don’t know how acceptable something like, say, penne pasta with sweet potatoes would be.”

The PB&J Fund also addresses the need for nutrition at home through its Holiday Giving program. Last month, Cost and a team of volunteers compiled 468 meal bags to go home with students participating in the Free and Reduced Lunch Program over Thanksgiving, and more emergency meal kits will be dispersed over the winter holiday, when students won’t have access to school breakfasts and lunches. The meal kits include step-by-step recipes, which Cost hopes will encourage both kids and their families to expand their palates and consider healthier options.

“I don’t think kids set out to eat healthy or unhealthy,” says Doherty’s PB&J classmate Sophi Stewart, who says the only thing they’ve made that she didn’t enjoy was Swiss chard cooked in vinegar. “At school you have to take a fruit or a vegetable and if you don’t want it, that’s just wasting it. But some healthy stuff actually tastes really good.”