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Today: Local school divisions are not always successful in getting children to eat better.
Tuesday: Making cafeteria food more desirable faces bureaucratic obstacles.
A silver cart dotted with milk cartons, apples and shiny oranges sits in the center of Buford Middle School’s cafeteria.
But this table isn’t a serving station where students scoop up healthy snacks. It’s how Charlottesville City Schools is trying to keep students from throwing away unwanted food — a problem across the country as school divisions attempt to facilitate more healthy eating and adhere to federal requirements for meals that are better for pupils.
Charlottesville encourages students to place the food they don’t want on these “sharing tables” for other students, but not every item finds a home.
“It’s sad because we’re building a healthy trash can,” said Sandra Vazquez, the city schools’ co-coordinator of nutrition.
Christina Pitsenberger, Albemarle County’s director of child nutrition, said she’s seen it too.
“Honestly, they tend to pick things that resemble already made food like pizza, chicken patties, that type of thing,” Pitsenberger said.
To combat this trend, Charlottesville has implemented the sharing tables, and both divisions try to offer a variety of fruit and vegetables. When students are given a choice, schools officials said, they are more likely to eat what they choose.
One reason students are discarding food in Albemarle, Pitsenberger said, is that some students aren’t making the switch to the whole grains that the National School Lunch Program requires.
In 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated the program’s guidelines to emphasize more whole grains, but Pitsenberger said many students simply aren’t used to those types of breads.
Another challenge is knowing the taste preferences of certain age groups and schools.
“Just because one school likes something doesn’t mean that it will be popular everywhere,” Pitsenberger said, adding that the secondary students prefer spicy food and are more adventurous eaters, whereas the elementary students like mild, familiar dishes.
For example, Pitsenberger is trying to incorporate a whole grain flat bread with Taziki sauce at the high schools, but knows that the younger grades probably wouldn’t go for it.
Getting adults on board
While both school divisions are trying to encourage students to eat healthy, Kate Adamick, co-founder of Cook for America — an organization that teaches school cooks to prepare meals from scratch — said the trend of students tossing food is not new, and is in large part because lunch periods across the country are too short.
“The garbage cans in United States’ schools have always been filled with food,” Adamick said. “What we see is that the kids near the back of the line get one or two minutes, literally, to eat their food.”
In the big picture, Ann Cooper, director of food services for the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, said changing student eating habits can’t occur in isolation.
“We can’t change our children’s relationship with food until we change the adults’ relationship with it, and that’s the adults who are parenting, teaching and cooking,” Cooper said, emphasizing that schools must have an educational component linked to healthy eating.
Boulder’s nutrition program has received attention for running about 200 educational programs a year, including “rainbow days,” when students are invited to make salads using every color of the rainbow and are rewarded for doing so.
Both Charlottesville and Albemarle have implemented small programs aimed at reinforcing nutritious decisions.
In addition to the local school divisions’ small scratch-cooking programs, Charlottesville has partnered with the nonprofit organization City Schoolyard Gardens, which has raised gardens in seven of the city’s nine schools.
Students who participate learn the basics of growing food, and teachers also use the gardens to reinforce curriculum.
There is also a garden and garden-to-market class at Charlottesville High School.
At Albemarle’s Meriwether Lewis Elementary, cafeteria director Cindy Tichner said the kitchen and physical education staff work together to reinforce the benefits of healthy food and activity. Meriwether Lewis’ PE teachers even place students on teams named after fruits and vegetables.
Meriwether Lewis Elementary School in Albemarle County has a garden from which students can eat.
Meriwether Lewis also has a garden from which students can eat.
“Throughout my career in teaching, and even as a parent, it is startling how disconnected children are from their food,” said Leigh Ann Kuhn, a third-grade teacher and garden coordinator at the school. “How it gets there, where it comes from and how much it actually takes to make this one head of broccoli or this one trail of peas or this one head of lettuce.”
“I’m hoping that over the course of the year, the children really start to connect to this in a life aspect,” Kuhn added, noting that she’d eventually like to see the students more involved in the food preparation process.
Lack of understanding
As students progress through their educational careers, however, some feel like the message wanes.
Ray Correll, a sophomore at Western Albemarle High School, said students learn nutrition basics in the health course taken in the 10th grade, but that there isn’t much beyond that.
Kiki Dowell, a freshman at Charlottesville High, said she doesn’t understand why she is forced to take a fruit or vegetable at lunch.
“They don’t teach us that fruit is good for us, they just tell us that we have to take one,” Dowell said.
A school must participate in the National School Lunch Program if it wants to offer the free and reduced-price meals program to income-qualified students.
For a school to be reimbursed for those meals — Charlottesville spends $1.91 on lunch, while Albemarle spends about $1.50 — it must meet certain requirements, which include a fruit at breakfast and a fruit or vegetable at lunch.
Angie Hasemann, a dietitian who specializes in pediatric nutrition, analyzed the nutrition labels on some of both divisions’ most popular meals and said the schools are offering “healthier alternatives to kid favorites.”
“I feel comfortable recommending parents to have their kids eat school lunch during the day and come home to a healthy, balanced meal for dinner,” Hasemann said.
What’s more, Hasemann said, it’s possible for school lunch to be healthier than one brought from home.
A “sharing table” at Charlottesville’s Buford Middle School. The city school division has implemented this strategy in an effort to keep students from throwing away unwanted meal items.
“Research supports that kids who eat school lunch typically consume fewer calories and more nutrients, as school lunches are portion controlled and balanced, two things that many families struggle to do when packing their own lunch,” Hasemann said. “Schools are required to serve fruits and vegetables at every lunch, and very few packed lunches from home can tout those two essential items for a well-balanced and nutritious meal.”
That said, Hasemann also pointed out that the most popular foods at school are processed and “often contain ingredients that kids can’t pronounce or visualize,” and she encouraged parents to read labels in the grocery store.
Cook for America’s Adamick said it’s time to view eating as the most important part of the day.
“It determines their ability to learn, their self-image and how they live the rest of their life,” she said. “It behooves us to put maximum effort into doing it right — these are our kids.”
Boulder’s Cooper agreed, and encouraged those leading school divisions to think about the support being offered to child nutrition.
“If I go into Starbucks and get a Venti Latte it’s going to be $5 or $5.50, and that’s five times more than most schools are spending per day on our kids’ lunches,” she said. “If a school district wants to be one of the best and educate its kids the best that it can, then they need to see food literacy as part of that model.”
Q. What about vending machines?
At Charlottesville High School the machines are locked from 8:35 a.m. until 4:20 p.m., or 30 minutes prior to the start of each day, and 30 minutes after the end of each day.
Jim Henderson, the city school division’s assistant superintendent, said the school still has the machines for evening programs, but that the division might recommend removing them soon.
Phil Giaramita, Albemarle schools’ spokesman, said vending machines are handled by principals at the building level. “There are strict nutritional rules that govern machines that students can access during the school day — for example, soda is not permitted,” he said.