In December of 2015, students in a civics class at Roosevelt High School in the Chicago Public Schools district started a campaign called, “The School Lunch Project: Culinary Denial.”

The students are studying the school district’s food system and are trying to raise awareness about the poor quality of food being served in their cafeteria.

Kids took photos of food served at their school and posted them to The School Lunch Project website. The photos of bruised fruit, frozen applesauce and discolored meat products helped illustrate the problem with food quality at their school.

Students met with school-district leadership but no agreement was reached about how to improve the school food. The students then made headlines in Chicago by organizing a boycott.

On the website students claim that, “Lunch at Roosevelt is no better than the ones in Cook County prison,” and then astutely point out that the school district’s food service provider, Aramark, also is contracted to feed the prison, just a short nine mile trip south of the school.

Public school food has probably never been on par with fine dining, but is it now really as bad as prison food? School districts face serious financial challenges and in some districts, improving school food is not a priority.

School Lunch

Boulder Valley School District Food Services Director Ann Cooper with one of BVSD’s local farmer partners, Mark Guttridge of Ollin Farms and
his family at our annual BVSD Day at the Market; one of their community outreach programs providing students and their families with the opportunity to enjoy the farmers market, meet local farmers, try samples of fresh, direct-from-the-farm produce and see local food in action.

But for school food leaders like Ann Cooper, the acclaimed chef and current director of food services for Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, offering better school food to children is the health and social justice issue of our time.

Chef Cooper speaks with passion and urgency about serving students fresh fruits and vegetables, and teaching children where food comes from. She served on the National Organic Standards Board from 2002-2004, and helped take the Boulder Valley School District from highly processed food products to predominately meals made from fresh, locally grown fruits, vegetables and hormone-free meats.

Although kids in Boulder and a growing number of food-savvy school districts are getting freshly prepared meals from local ingredients, students across the country are generally offered a revolving school lunch menu of pre-packaged, warm-and-serve corn dogs, pizza and cheeseburgers. This happens even though the Center for Disease Control (CDC) states that in the past 30 years, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents. The CDC grimly warns that if current trends continue, as many as one out of every three adults in the U.S. could have diabetes by 2050.

School Lunch

Delighted students on the first day of their new salad bar at Malcolm X Elementary School in Berkeley, CA.

HOW DID ANN COOPER TRANSFORM THE BOULDER VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT LUNCHROOMS?

“Putting in salad bars is a first great step,” she says, “because it’s a great way for a district to showcase to the parents, the administration, the community and the students that you are actually trying to make a difference. Offering fresh fruits and vegetables is a great way to showcase that change can happen.”

But many school districts operate on a food-cost budget of about one dollar per student meal, so school districts have to see the value in offering healthier good food to students.

She explains, “You have to have the superintendent, the school board and the community ready for change.”

According to Bertrand Weber, an innovative food service director at Minneapolis Public Schools in Minnesota, it can take more than readiness for change to bring better food to a school district, unless the school district’s food service director understands the value of whole foods and scratch-based cooking.

A major obstacle to improving school food is that over the past 50 years many kitchens in public schools have been stripped of essential equipment and replaced with box cutters and warming ovens.

“First and foremost, unless the food service director has a lifestyle and a belief that whole food is better than processed food, they’ll say ‘I follow regulations, and what I serve is just fine.’ So unless the director gets it, it’s harder to make changes,” Weber says.

The federal government has established nutritional requirements for school food, but the USDA’s idea of a nutritious lunch might not align with Weber’s or Cooper’s or your mom’s vision of a wholesome meal. For example, the USDA Nutrition Standards for School Meals actually allow French fries to qualify as a vegetable and fruit juice from concentrate to qualify as a fruit.

As chef Cooper made clear in a 2013 TedX talk, a student can eat corn chips with nacho cheese, French fries with catsup, a cup of applesauce and then wash it down with chocolate-flavored one-percent milk and still boast of having eaten a school lunch that meets the USDA nutritional requirements.

Similar to Cooper’s strategy for changing the school food system, one of the first things Bertrand Weber did was to establish salad bars. He then started to source pre-packaged foods made with better ingredients.

Weber explains that a major obstacle to improving school food is that over the past 50 years many kitchens in public schools have been stripped of essential equipment and replaced with box cutters and warming ovens. Kitchens became non-functional as the food service model switched from on-site cooking to the re-packing and distribution of pre-cooked meals.

School Lunch

One of the most influential changes Weber made early on was at a high school that still had a kitchen where they were able to cook food.

“When we reintroduced real food, we had an incredible amount of positive feedback from students and teachers about the change of students behavior during lunch so we were able to show what we were planning to do was impactful. We attracted attention from local communities and raised over $1.5 million in grant money to rebuild the central kitchen.”

While warming pre-packaged food instead of cooking it sounds more efficient, the result has been institutionalized food that looks good on a menu but is actually highly processed and made palatable only with added sugar, salt, dyes, artificial flavors and preservatives.

Adam Kesselman, program director at the Center for Ecoliteracy, a nonprofit that works with school districts on food issues, says many schools are serving highly processed food products that don’t have the same micro nutrient content found in fresh vegetables. He explains that the majority of heat-and-serve school food has been designed to appeal to kids the same way junk food does.

“Some school districts are afraid to introduce whole foods because they don’t have the carnival food appeal. But a cultural shift is going on, and in school districts that are serving better food and educating the kids about where food comes from, we are starting to see a shift in palates.”

Kesselman also facilitates a program called California Thursdays that helps school districts in California create freshly prepared meals from local ingredients.

The idea behind California Thursdays, explains Kesselman, is what he calls a “bite-sized implementation strategy.” Participating schools districts and their food service directors are challenged to create a fresh meal from locally grown ingredients. To make it work, school districts have to figure out how to work with local farms and food distributors, cook thousands of meals using fresh ingredients in existing kitchen facilities and then market the freshly made meals to students.

The effect of California Thursdays is to reset the standard, says Kesselman. “Schools with California Thursdays have done a great job with procurement, professional development, recipe development and marketing. The program has created a standard that some school districts are aiming to achieve for all days of the week.”

Bertrand Weber at the Minneapolis Public Schools has emulated the program by starting Minnesota Thursdays once a month.

The notion of “bite-sized changes” makes sense in school districts that are truly committed to bringing good food to students.

School Lunch

But for students and parents in districts where good food is not being served and change isn’t happening fast enough, Adam Kesselman points toward The Center for Ecoliteracy guidebook, Rethinking School Lunch.

The document breaks down the essential ingredients for changing school food into 10 pathways for change and covers topics like how to procure fresh, local and sustainably grown products, create dining facilities that are inviting places to eat and double as learning centers to support classroom lessons about sustainable agriculture and how offering fresh, healthy food can be financially viable.

Kesselman explains that according to USDA Nutrition Services data, roughly seven billion meals are served in U.S. schools each year. “School food represents an incredible opportunity to create change in the food system and establish a food culture with our youth. If we can create changes at that institutional level, it has huge ramifying effects.”