A look at school lunches: Evolving expectations and tastes
Chicken souvlaki and hummus wraps, served with locally sourced apples and pears. Organic congee soup, presented alongside sesame noodles with fresh pea pods. School lunch menus are getting a renovation, moving away from frozen and fried, and many schools in Western New York are revamping their offerings for the sake of their diners—children. According to “Let’s Move,” a United States government campaign aiming to raise a healthier generation of kids, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled over the past three decades, with nearly one in three children being overweight or obese.
The Chefs Move to Schools program, founded in May 2010 by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, is an integral part of the First Lady’s “Let’s Move!” initiative and its goal of solving the childhood obesity epidemic within a generation. One facet of the program gives schools the necessary tools to make positive changes. Kathy Christopher, child nutrition director for the Williamsville Central School District, says the Chefs Move to Schools program is doing a wonderful job of helping kids find a healthy way of living and eating. Christopher creates the school lunch menus, covering one million meals each year, and designs educational lessons, which takes her into classrooms around Williamsville.
“First Lady Michelle Obama is inspiring us to go out and improve and expand their palates,” says Christopher, who notes that students are encouraged to fill half their plates with vegetables and fruits. She stresses that the school’s nutrition program strives to find positive ways to approach this concept with the children.
Chefs Move to Schools helped Christopher coordinate a fruit and vegetable tasting at Forest Elementary School in Amherst. During Fun, Fitness, and Nutrition Week, Scott Green, executive chef for Delaware North Companies for Sportservice at First Niagara Center, visited to lead the special event. Green was among the inaugural group of chefs invited to the White House to commemorate the start of Chefs Move to School and has been a part of the program since its founding.
“I really do believe local is better,” says Christopher, who sourced twenty tons of local produce last school year. “We put out letters to farms every year to see what they have. Wagner Farms in Lockport has been wonderful to work with, but they aren’t the only one we are working with.”
The district is overhauling what it serves to meet new requirements as set forth by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Improving child nutrition is the focal point of the legislation, which authorizes funding and sets policy for USDA’s core child nutrition programs. For the first time in over thirty years, the act allows USDA to make reforms to school lunch and breakfast programs.
“We’re almost focusing on going down a slow food road,” says Christopher. “We focus on from-scratch items and are always researching new menu items.”
The “veggilicious veggie bar” in Williamsville schools allows students to munch on snow pea pods, and hot sides include sautéed bok choy, escarole, and kale. Hummus and several fresh fruit options are served as well. High schools in the district have salad bars, featuring a romaine and spring mix, and submarine bars. School lunch standards, such as pizza and chicken nuggets, are now made in-house at many schools, controlling the ingredients, calories, and nutritional value.
At Tapestry Charter School in Buffalo, the staff is taking measures to improve and expand lunch offerings and educate the whole child in the process, from classroom to lunchroom to outdoors. Kevin McCarthy, the chef behind the school’s lunch program, also works at Globe Market. He prepares daily lunch offerings that include a variety of soups, rice dishes, pasta dishes, salad, and fruit. The menu focuses on less processed foods, and keeps with the notion of making favorites healthier by preparing them from scratch.
“For example, when we buy chicken to make chicken fingers, Kevin is making that from scratch,” says Joy Pepper, executive director at Tapestry. “He’s buying chicken breast, cutting it up, creating a breading, and then he’s baking them in the oven; they’re fabulous.”
Jessica Kauffman, fifth and sixth grade science teacher at Tapestry, recognizes success in the school/home/community connection in the curriculum. As students learned about sustainability in science class, they visited gardens on the west side of Buffalo. The lesson: people could live more sustainably by growing their own food. Kauffman and her husband bought several city blocks to create their own farm, known as Five Loaves Farm, comprised of lots scattered throughout the upper west side, including one at the corner of West Delavan and West avenues.
“Right now, we are buying local produce from Guercio’s, but when Five Loaves is producing a volume that would [make it feasible] to buy our lettuce or certain herbs, then we may contract with them,” says Pepper. “We spend a lot of money on our food, and it’s never a breakeven. What we’re buying costs more money than what we could ever collect.”
In the high school, students started gardening in their science classroom with the help of their teacher. The class then built grow boxes, put them together, filled them with dirt, and did the first planting. A K-8 initiative, the gardening began with students germinating marigolds, sunflowers, beans, radishes, carrots, and peas, before transplanting outside. The crop will eventually go into the lunch program if it becomes a place that can support food for the school. “I think it’s been really meaningful for the kids so far,” says Kauffman.
Nichols School in Buffalo offers a food service program through SAGE Dining, which focuses on providing delicious, high-quality, nutritious meals in independent schools and private colleges. In 2010, Nichols evaluated its food service program with a fresh perspective and began exploring options for providers who aligned with the school’s desire to continually offer quality food and bolster sustainability efforts. SAGE, which is found in nearly 200 schools across the US, including the Gow School in South Wales, was a good fit for Nichols.
“SAGE operates in a way that helps all members of our community maintain healthy lifestyles,” says Rick Bryan, head of Nichols School. “With lunch included in our tuition cost and available as a benefit to our employees, it’s an extremely important part of our daily life at Nichols.”
SAGE provides in-house chefs who prepare customized menus, considering the local growing seasons to utilize fresh produce. Dan Flanagan, food service director for SAGE Dining, works with Tarantino Foods to purchase produce from Eden Valley Growers, Torrey Farms, Bowman Farms, and Hurtgam Farms, ranging from tomatoes and zucchini to strawberries.
“Whether at Buffalo Yacht Club, La Tee Da or Nichols School, at the end of the day, it has to smell good, look good, and taste good, and that’s what makes your reputation,” says Flanagan, who most recently worked as head chef at La Tee Da in Buffalo. “That’s why we all work hard here.
Flanagan says the food aims for a balanced diet for the maturing bodies and minds of young people. A nutritionist checks all menus and a dietician approves all items served. They bake, broil, grill, and sauté rather than fry, and use trans-fat-free oils. Nichols’s daily lunch menu includes several house-made hot entrées, hummus, grain salads, bean salads, and pasta salads. A robust salad bar, deli spread, and fresh fruit are available daily. SAGE emphasizes a balanced approach to eating relies on getting a variety of nutrients from an array of foods, with moderation being key.
“In partnership with SAGE, we offer wholesome, great-tasting food that’s made from scratch,” says Bryan. “The emphasis is on freshness, flavor, and seasonality.”
Last fall, SAGE supported the school’s yield from their green roof garden by serving tomatoes, peppers, and basil grown on campus. Bryan notes that several aspects of the school’s dining offerings keep in line with the environmental sustainability program at the school. Milk is bought in bulk and served in cups in order to eliminate the waste of individual cartons, and SAGE helped Nichols fulfill its student-led mission of being “trayless.” By using only plates, they greatly reduce the amount of water used for dishwashing.
At Aurora Waldorf School in West Falls, a renewed lunch offering started as a soup program on Wednesdays, with house-made bread and soup for lunch, and quarts of soup being sold “to go” for dinner. According to Lisabeth Abt Pieters, development and marketing director for Aurora Waldorf, the school did a great deal of research upfront before putting forth a proposal for changes. Four days a week, students dine on lunches featuring whole grains and vegetables for $3 per meal. In order to keep costs down, little or no meat is used in meals.
“If and when we use meat, we are very concerned with the quality and the cost,” says Peters, who notes that meat is sometimes used as a garnish. However, a popular soup offering at the school is sausage escarole, which features locally made sausage.
There is an emphasis on local and organic items, including a commitment to following the dirty dozen’s recommendations for buying organic when using produce that most frequently tests high for the presence of pesticides. In the spring, students enjoyed pizza made with dough from Elm Street Bakery in East Aurora. The school also works with Thorpes Farm in East Aurora and Braymiller Market in Hamburg to source as much local product as possible.
From abandoning processed ingredients to sourcing local food for meals, many schools are making strides to advance their lunch programs. Teaching students valuable lessons about the food they consume may begin at home, but schools play a critical role in the process. Weaving in curriculum about nutrition and sustainable living while putting philosophy into practice in the lunchroom stands to be a winning combination, with area students benefiting most.
Nina Barone is the director of marketing and communications at Nichols School and an adventurous home cook. You can read her blog at buffalofoodie.com.