Greening School Lunches - how area schools are offering healthier, greener choices for students
When it comes to nutrition, school-aged children can be particularly picky eaters, often selecting tried and true favorites such as pizza, chicken nuggets, and the always-popular macaroni and cheese. But while those foods might taste great, they are not providing the essential nutrients, vitamins, and minerals required for children to properly grow and develop.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the United States since 1980, with the percentage of obese children ages 6 to 11 skyrocketing from seven percent in 1980 to an astounding 20 percent in 2008. The numbers are not much better for older children. Using the latest CDC figures, obesity in young adults ages 12 to 19 has climbed from five percent to 18 percent over that same timeframe. Combining the age groups together, the latest CDC figures claim that more than one third of school-aged children were either overweight or obese in 2008, which is troubling news to parents, educators, and food service professionals like Todd Fowler.
Fowler has spent a majority of his adult life passionately working with food. After working as a private chef, Fowler accepted the position as Food Service Director with the Bloomfield Central School District in 1997 and has spent the last 15 years striving to get children to consume more fruits and vegetables.
"Going back to my time as a chef, I always loved to use local ingredients and produce that was grown by local farmers," says Fowler, who has also worked with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County in the district's drive for more homegrown produce in schools. "Fifteen years ago, these kids didn't eat their fruits and vegetables in schools. Through fruits and vegetables, children get the essential vitamins and minerals they need, and we're doing what we can to change that," says Fowler, who advocates changing what children eat in their meals at school.
Fowler also serves as the local coordinator for the Finger Lakes Farm to Cafeteria project, and serves on the regional steering committee for the national Farm to School program, a nation-wide effort that matches schools with local farms and farmers to offer healthier meals in school cafeterias. The organization's goal is to improve nutrition among students while supporting the work of both local and regional farmers.
The Farm to School program works with interested school districts to find local farmers who can provide locally produced fruits and vegetables for consumption in school cafeterias. They also provide free training, informational services, networking and support to interested school districts.
Years ago, Fowler and the Bloomfield School District began offering its students a selection of fresh fruits and vegetables that had been grown by local farmers. Recognizing that it would take time for these children to develop a fondness for fruits and vegetables, Fowler started slowly, building up the school's farmers' market line to include roughly 18 to 24 offerings of fresh fruits and vegetables.
As children became more and more interested in healthier eating options, the selection grew to match the interest, and now Fowler is proud to say that, with every meal, Bloomfield offers every child fresh fruit salad and side salads made solely from produce collected from local farmers. Refraining from calling it a salad bar, Fowler says children have access to different assortments of field greens, lettuces, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers and fruits, among other offerings. "The movement towards healthier eating in schools hasn't won everyone over yet, and kids still prefer if mom and dad takes them to get fast food when they're out of school," Fowler says. "If you sanitize the cafeterias and only have healthy choices, kids will go back to eating fast food and junk food when they get out of school. But here we're winning because the kids are making the choices themselves to eat healthier."
Seven area schools in Ontario County work with Fowler as part of the partnership between local growers and local schools. The seven that participate through the local chapter of the Farm to Schools program are Bloomfield, Canandaigua, Geneva, Honeoye, Naples, Red Jacket and Victor. "That's a positive impact -- providing our school-children with quality, homegrown fruits and vegetables while also supporting the local economy," Fowler says. "There's definitely been a growing trend towards doing more with local farmers when it comes to cafeteria food. Maybe 15 years ago it was tough going getting partnerships between schools and area farmers, but now everyone seems to be a stakeholder. This [movement] impacts the local community in a positive way and is a winwin for the farmers, the parents, the children, everyone."
Since 1975, Rochester Roots, a nonprofit school gardening organization, has been harvesting a love of gardening, farming and eating healthy among children in the city of Rochester. The organization currently works with Rochester City School District students at the Franklin Montessori School and Clara Barton School #2 to produce productive gardens and greenhouses that demonstrate the value of eating locally-grown produce. Through these efforts, Rochester Roots has introduced a new generation of schoolaged children, as well as teachers, parents and neighbors in the city of Rochester, to the benefits of eating healthier.
Children spend ample time in the gardens, growing their own snacks and being exposed to a whole different bevy of food options, alternatives that aren't normally present in the corner stores, says Sara Scott, Rochester Roots' farm manager.
"There's definitely a sense of pride that our students have from growing their own snacks," adds Scott, who points out that when talking about eating healthier, it's about trying to alter both the child's and the parent's approach to food. "A lot of these children live in neighborhoods where the access to fresh foods isn't as great and they won't see much fresh produce, but in the garden you can get them into new foods that they hopefully want to eat at home too. And if they share these food ideas with mom, dad, grandma and grandpa soon, hopefully the whole family is eating these fresh fruits and vegetables that they might not have been exposed to in the past."
At the Franklin Montessori School, Scott says students have grown mostly tomatoes, with roughly 20 garden beds sprouting with turnips, carrots, beets and herbs, among other items. Recently parents inquired about growing potatoes, so the students are also trying their hand at growing spuds in their garden.
At Clara Barton School #2, students have grown lettuce, turnips, tomatoes, peppers, okra, kale, eggplant, summer and winter squash, flowers and herbs on the half-acre urban garden. "They're all the things you would ever want to find at a farmers' market," says Scott, who adds a key component to the garden has been identifying kid-friendly products that parents would also know how to prepare for meals at home.
In addition to Rochester Roots, the South West Neighborhood Association (SWAN) has a Grow Green Youth Entrepreneur program where area children – while learning about efficient gardening techniques – produce their own cherry tomatoes, carrots, corn, collard greens, radishes, peppers, eggplant, watermelons and more in their own heated greenhouse. After the produce has been harvested, these children go to a farmers' market and sell their produce while learning good business skills.
While the cafeteria landscape has changed dramatically over the last 15 to 20 years, and local farmers are providing more fresh produce than before, there's still a ways to go before Jim Ochterski and the members of Cornell Cooperative Extension are satisfied that school lunches have reached an acceptable level of both healthiness and home-grown quality.
"We're not near our full potential; we could get 10 times the amount of local foods to our schools that we are currently achieving," says Ochterski, the agriculture issues leader with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County.
"Distribution is key, and one of the barriers is a scale mismatch. A small family farm in a big elementary school is not going to be able to provide the school's needs, that's a scale mismatch, whereas wholesalers like Cisco can meet the school's needs with its large supplies," he says. "In order to meet the needs of the school, a small farm just cannot meet those needs; that's not what occurs to a lot of people when they think about getting local foods into schools. It's a great thought and we're definitely excited that more schools are going local, but we have a ways to go."
John Boccacino is a freelance writer living in Webster,NY who reported on sports and local news for more than 6 1/2 years with the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper. He is currently the Director of Sports Information for Keuka College.