Schools in Othello, Wash., and Cheney have made serious headway on healthier school lunches this year, an effort they hope will help halt the rise of childhood obesity.
Grants from the Empire Health Foundation helped the districts swap last year’s processed heat-and-serve menus for from-scratch cooking. They’ve tossed additives, high-fructose corn syrup and most artificial colors. They’re shunning sugary flavored milk and processed pizza, chicken nuggets and fries.
“It has been quite an experience,” said Janette Root, director of dining services for the Othello School District. “Last year, we received everything from the government or FSA in a box ready to put on a sheet pan and we were basically rewarmers. … A lot of food went into the garbage. It was probably my biggest concern.
“Now everything comes fresh and we either cut it up and serve it or chop it up and cook it,” she said. “Several times at the beginning the kids were a little freaked out. There’s no pizza, no nachos and no chocolate milk.”
“Now, they love it. I get emails. They stop me in Wal-Mart,” she said.
Sarah Lyman, a senior associate with Empire Health Foundation’s strategic grant program, said officials for the charitable foundation settled on plans to support an obesity prevention program last year and began looking for ways to plug into communities already promoting healthier eating and lifestyles.
“Across all ages, the obesity rate has quadrupled in the past 40 years, which is an astonishing rate,” Lyman said. “The staggering statistic is that children who were born after the year 2000 have for the first time in history a shorter life expectancy than their parents. The issue is clearly in the spotlight.”
Lyman said they started with assessments to identify communities with the greatest need and those with comprehensive approaches and local champions who would be willing to work with the health foundation. Schools, especially those with large numbers of students receiving free and reduced-cost lunches, were identified as places an investment would have the biggest effect. They started in rural districts so they could fine-tune the grant program before moving to bigger schools.
“Increasing access to healthy foods in schools is so important because for a lot of kids, breakfast and lunch at school are the only meals they get, so when it is poor nutritional content, clearly that is going to have an enormous impact on their health,” Lyman said.
Once the districts in Othello and Cheney were chosen, the programs evolved quickly. Grant money from Empire Health helped both districts bring consultants into the school kitchens to work with the food services directors. The programs developed separately, with different consultants, but the goals were the same: offer whole foods and from-scratch cooking while tossing the processed foods and sugar.
Over the summer, ordering practices at the schools were overhauled, workers retrained, recipes tested and the new healthy menus were introduced at schools in both districts this fall.
“We have to give so much credit to these school districts … within literally weeks of bringing up the discussion with school districts they were ready to go,” said Antony Chiang, president of the Empire Health Foundation. “The leadership of those two organizations deserves enormous credit for just turning on a dime.”
In the library at Lutacaga Elementary in Othello, the kindergartners are eating creamy French brie, noshing on red quinoa and considering minted cauliflower. They get a smile and a fist bump from a silver-haired man in a black chef’s jacket for their effort.
That man is chef Tom French from the Experience Food Project, based on the state’s West Side. French is the consultant helping Othello create the new school lunch menu.
During “Taste, Talk and Try” events in the libraries, kids get a chance to sample new foods and talk with teachers and friends. Sometimes there are ingredients they might eventually see in the cafeteria, but really it’s designed to inspire them to taste something new.
“It’s getting them into the mindset of being willing and open-minded enough to at least try something. We tell them you don’t have like it, but at least we have to be willing to try things,” French said.
They stamp a food passport as they go, checking off pluots, arugula, goat cheese and more. The kindergarten students at Lutacaga were also biting into whole cranberries, pickled asparagus, aged cheddar, artichoke hearts, peppers, hummus, pineapple, lemon and couscous.
They’ve found the kids take the experience at home, too. “Parents start getting the idea that their kids are starting to try things,” French said.
The Othello School District serves 3,700 kids. Some 87 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches, 80 percent of the children are Latino and 40 percent are considered migrant, or part of families that move to follow work.
Working closely with dining director Root, they’re now serving from-scratch breakfasts and lunches. Where there used to be cereal, chicken nuggets, nachos and pizza, there is pork loin with mashed potatoes, chicken parmesan with marinara over pasta and pot roast with roasted carrots and potatoes. After consulting with elders in the community, the district created a “Latin fusion” bar to offer culturally appropriate foods that are healthier. The salad bars are popular with kids.
Although Root was whole-heartedly behind the changes, she was nervous and skeptical that it would actually work. Especially when French planned roasted squash on the menu this fall.
“I thought, ‘Everyone and their uncle has squash coming out of their ears this time of year. These kids are not going to eat this.’ But it was so good, the kids just gobbled it up.”
When “Chef Tom” first met with Othello school administrators, he brought food samples to show off his work. Among the offerings was a tray of roasted honey-glazed sweet potatoes. By the end of the meeting, those officials were fighting over the last bites. In the past, it would have been jostling for the final piece of pizza or the last brownie.
Working with French, they’ve begun to order differently from the government commodities program – choosing chicken instead of chicken nuggets and potatoes instead of French fries. They’ve also leveraged buying power to persuade private manufacturers to package products for them without additives such as sodium benzoate.
French, who has worked with school districts, tribal organizations and others in the past seven years, says there are three big myths that keep districts from trying to overhaul menus: Kids won’t eat it. It’s not cost-effective. School kitchens would have to be retooled.
He’s found those fears to be unfounded, and they’re proving that again in Othello.
The number of kids who are buying breakfast is up 8 percent and the number of teachers eating at the high school alone has doubled. Officials are getting notes regularly from teachers like the one Marilyn Gilberts sent: “Last year I was getting concerned with what seemed like more and more processed foods, things in plastic. This year, there is such a greater variety of wholesome and healthy foods. It is a wonderful change.”
Gina Bullis, assistant superintendent in Othello, said the lunch program simply must sustain itself. There is no money to carry it after the grant is gone.
“Only two months into the program I ran the numbers for the program and we’re at break-even. We expected that. This program has to sustain itself, but I have every confidence that it will. … I think we are going to get even more efficient.
French said the success is really a credit to the district and parents. “This community and district stands out in my mind from any other district that we have worked with for the level of support and collaboration. Everyone from superintendent to custodial staff.”
Back to Scratch
There’s something about seeing a 13-year-old student with Type 2 diabetes brought on by obesity. Or, listening to a 12-year-old child talk about sleep apnea, said Brian Levy, the director of dining services for the Cheney School District.
“It was the right thing to do by the kids. Childhood obesity is such a big problem. That was the biggest motivating factor for us. We want these kids to be healthy,” he said.
The Cheney School District serves some 3,000 meals each day. Almost 50 percent of the students in the district receive free or reduced-price lunches. They’ve been working with a chef from Cook for America to change the menu for their lunch program, called Back to Scratch.
For example, instead of serving fries, the district now offers a baked potato day. They offer homemade chili to put over it and a variety of other toppings on the baked potato bar.
Fries aren’t the only things that went out with the change. There are no fried foods at all, no cookies, ice creams or other desserts. Flavored milk got the boot.
“We served our kids 9,800 pounds of sugar last year in flavored milk alone, strawberry and chocolate,” Levy said.
Do the math and that averages out to roughly 3 pounds of sugar each year per student or about 1.3 pounds of body weight per year, per student, he says. Calculate that for the years in public school and the effect could be an average of more than 15 pounds per kid. “That could take a kid from borderline overweight to obese,” Levy said.
Levy said they are using many of the same tactics as the Othello district to order less processed foods through government programs and from food service providers. And they started by returning to the basics, training cooks to work in high volume, brushing up on knife skills and training on raw meat handling and regulations for cooling and reheating food.
They’re still perfecting recipes, training and working with students to help them understand why the changes were made. They’ve switched their entrees for scratch-cooked meals and offer daily salads and sandwiches. They’ll be working on sauces and salad dressings soon, along with an overhaul of breakfast.
Laura Martin, the wellness coordinator for the Cheney School District, said it has really been a culture change for students. Because elementary students eat lunch in the classroom with their teachers, they are able to talk to the kids about what they’re eating.
“We found a lot of kids weren’t familiar with dishes,” Martin said. Now, they post pictures of the entrees and teachers talk about the ingredients of enchiladas or chicken pot pie when they plan for lunch.
The school is also working with the city of Cheney and the Let’s Move Cheney Coalition for a broader approach to the problem of childhood obesity. The coalition is working to change afterschool programs, encouraging residents to walk and hosting healthy cooking classes.
Changing the school menu was big step in the right direction, they say.
“Our fear was that it was going to be a financial wreck. We can’t lose money as a program because then the school is losing money for books and projectors and pencils,” Levy said. “Working with Empire and a consultant took that fear away. We’re at break-even right now. I can only assume it is going to get better.”
Want to encourage kids to eat healthier foods at home? Cook with them, says Chef French. Here’s a recipe to help you get started.
Family Flatbread Pizza and Roasted Bananas
From Chef Tom French, Experience Food Project. French writes, “Want to be a hero in the kitchen and still get your kids to eat better? Here is a great Flatbread Pizza and Grilled Banana experience where everyone can help. Make it a challenge to use new ingredients that are “outside the box.” Spend some time together in the kitchen making kid-friendly food. This recipe is a great starter for families that want to spend more time together preparing meals.”
1 envelope active dry yeast
1 cup warm water, 110 degrees
1 1/2 teaspoons raw sugar
2 1/4 to 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups marinara sauce
Fun toppings: cheese, artichoke hearts, hearts of palm, Italian parsley, fresh mozzarella, mushrooms, etc.
Put warm water in a cup; sprinkle yeast over water and stir in sugar; let stand for about 10 minutes, or until it begins to bubble.
Combine 2 1/4 cups flour and salt in a large bowl; pour in oil and yeast mixture and stir until a stiff dough is formed.
Turn dough out onto a floured surface; knead about 5 minutes, or until smooth and elastic. Add extra flour as needed to keep from sticking to hands and board.
Coat large bowl with olive oil; turn dough over to coat well. Cover with towel and let rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes. Dough should double in bulk. Punch down the dough and roll out individual pizza rounds, approximately 8 inches.
Over medium heat, place a small amount of oil in large nonstick pan or griddle; place pizza rounds into pan one at a time until they start to bubble, repeat for other side.
Go with your favorite topping plus some exciting options (get really creative) and place pizza in 350-degree oven to finish, about 7 minutes.
Yield: 4 servings
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon lemon juice
Dash of orange juice
Natural yogurt or ice cream
Preheat oven to 450 degrees, peel bananas and slice lengthwise. Place in ovenproof dish and sprinkle bananas with lemon, honey and orange juice. Cover with foil and bake for 5-8 minutes. Remove foil and let bananas sit for a few minutes. Place over yogurt or ice cream.
Yield: 4 servings
Roasted Root Vegetables
Here is a quick version of roasted root vegetables that are a surprise hit with children, says French.
Use any squash or other root vegetable; potatoes, yams, turnips and squash. Cut into bite-size pieces, toss with olive oil; throw in some fresh garlic cloves and bake at 425 degrees turning once for color and roast until vegetables are tender but still firm (al dente); sprinkle with kosher salt and serve.
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