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Healthier School Lunch?

Posted by Kara Miller, Culture Club  July 18, 2012 08:31 AM

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school.lunch.smallr.jpgWe all know the stories.

Kids who grab the brownie and roll off their tray and dump everything else. Kids who complain that healthier food has come to school - so they have to smuggle in Doritos from home in order to survive until 3:00 pm.

When I was in fifth grade, I refused to eat sandwiches for a year, and my mom packed me pieces of pumpkin bread, along with cookies and fruit. Not super balanced, but I was a stubborn kid.

When I asked my husband what he remembers about cafeteria food, he told me that, "People's favorite vegetable was ketchup. They thought it was great. They put it on everything."

And the most popular food in his Pennsylvania school? "It had to be wraps. People loved wraps. They would give you a tortilla, some chicken fingers, and French fries, and you wrapped it all up."

What? The filling for the wrap was French fries and chicken fingers?

"You obviously never saw how popular it was," he said, dismayed at my inability to understand the wraps' appeal. "There was a huge line for those things."

But - in a country where one in three kids now qualifies as overweight or obese - the food kids get in school is attracting increased scrutiny. (For low-income students, who may be entitled to both free breakfast and free lunch, school food can easily constitute more than 50% of their daily calories.)

Enter the Chef Initiative, an outgrowth of Project Bread, which partnered with Harvard School of Public Health to bring trained chefs into Massachusetts public schools. But the road has not been easy.

Chef Kirk Conrad graduated from the Culinary Institute of America and worked at the posh restaurant Top of the Hub before advising public schools, and he says kids are the toughest critics he's ever had.

"The age range from five to nineteen are the most difficult critics that you will ever encounter in the food services department," he admitted to me earlier this week on WGBH. "I’m telling you that right now truthfully."

Conrad works with cafeteria staff to help them cook food from scratch, despite the fact that there are a lot of prepackaged options out there.

"They were buying pre-made sandwiches," Conrad recalled. "They come in frozen, so they're already pre-made, sliced bologna sandwiches that they take out a day ahead of time. And what the cafeteria employees were doing is they were opening the bags up and putting lettuce and tomato in them. By the time it takes you to open up these frozen, pre-made sandwiches, we could have had fresh rolls, sliced turkey and ham, lettuce and tomato and had fresh-made sandwiches for less money than it cost to get these pre-made sandwiches in."

The results of the Chef Initiative are pretty impressive - students at schools aided by chefs consumed more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains than those at other schools (yes, the researchers collected the kids' trash, so they knew how much was being thrown away).

But it's not necessarily an instant fix. "One of the big messages that we found is that it does take kids a little while to acclimate," said Juliana Cohen, a research fellow at Harvard School of Public Health. "Research often finds that kids need to taste something ten times before it becomes familiar and something that they really like. So these changes don't happen overnight."

Which raises a fascinating question: can all school cafeterias embrace healthy foods? What have you seen with your own kids? How hard is it to get them to eat more nutritious fare? And how hard should we - as a state and country - try?

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
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About the author

Kara Miller is an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in journalism, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She also serves as a guest panelist on WGBH-TV's “Beat the Press” and contributes to 89.7 FM WGBH (NPR). More »

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