At Cheney High School, students hardly realized hummus had been added to the menu. Its stealthy label is “veggie dip.”
“Wait: Is that the sort of white stuff they serve on the salad bar a couple times a week? No, I don’t like that,” said Bridget Calvert, 14. “The texture, that’s what I don’t like.”
Francisco Martinez loves the chickpea puree. The 15-year-old had tried it at a friend’s house once before and eats it regularly at school.
Now the federal government will try to ensure students eat more hummus and other foods made from legume crops grown in Eastern Washington and North Idaho.
The new farm bill – signed into law Feb. 7 – will put more healthy foods on school lunch menus across the country.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell visited Mead High School on Friday to talk up the bill’s boost for local farmers and food companies.
Washington produces nearly half of the nation’s total chickpeas and is third in pea and lentil production.
The lentil and chickpea choices Mead offered Friday – roasted chickpeas and lentils; hummus veggie wraps and lentil sloppy joes – impressed Cantwell.
“What I’m finding is where young kids are involved, these healthy eating programs are more successful,” Cantwell said. “These (Mead) kids are all over it.”
School districts focused on providing healthier food choices, including high-protein legumes, are already seeing the difference.
Students in seven King County school districts showed a 17 percent decline in youth obesity after participating in a two-year program in which Seattle and King County public health partnered with schools and community organizations to offer better food choices and opportunities for physical activity, according to a recent Centers for Disease Control report.
Obesity rates remained the same in districts that did not participate, with at least one exception.
Cheney School District did a small-scale initiative almost identical to King County’s program. Numbers showed a 2 percent decrease in overweight and obese students after two years, the district reported last year.
Healthy food options, including lentils and chickpeas, are a large component of Cheney’s success. “We just did a lentil chili, and it was a hit,” said Brian Levy, Cheney’s nutrition services director. Lentils are the district’s featured local food this month.
Taylor Ayling had never tasted lentils before trying the chili. The 14-year-old said she’d eat it again. “I liked it.”
The high school students seem to like hummus, said cafeteria cashier Debra Nielson, and the elementary students do too.
Hummus is offered daily at Mead High School at a build-your-own-sandwich bar. “We probably sell 10 to 12 hummus wraps per day,” said Kim Elkins, the district’s child nutrition director. “Students today are smart consumers. They want options that are healthy, vegetarian, and are locally produced. Pulse crops meet all the criteria.”
Parents who responded to a question on The Spokesman-Review’s Facebook page about their kids eating hummus mostly said it was a great snack. Several mentioned using the “veggie dip” trick like Cheney High School did.
A portion of the farm bill, the Pulse School Pilot provision, provides the U.S. Department of Agriculture $10 million through 2017 to purchase peas, lentils, chickpeas and hummus to use in school breakfasts and lunches.
Cantwell hopes Washington schools are among the first to apply for these funds.
“Healthy school lunches of high fiber and high protein are a great way to go in the future,” Cantwell said, “and it also helps us produce jobs in Washington state.”