These days, the real food fights in school cafeterias are between adults.
Disagreements between parents and school districts have continued after passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and the Department of Agriculture’s revamped guidelines on school lunches.
Some parents cite personal freedom (chocolate chip cookies, anyone?) in complaining about revamped lunches, while others argue for more stringent rules (banish those killer snacks and sweets now!). Some school districts, meanwhile, have complained about the higher costs associated with reducing fat, sugar and sodium or adhering to whole-grain requirements in the foods they offer.
Unfortunately, one thing is hard to argue: Flavor became a major casualty of the school food fights. Students were quick to complain about the bland menus—and if students won’t eat the food, that definitely defeats the purpose.
But some in Rochester think they have a way to help. The Healthi Kids Coalition, an initiative of the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency headquartered in Rochester, is partnering with the Rochester City School District to sprinkle “Flavor Stations” throughout schools in the coming school year. Four schools were piloted in 2015, while 10 to 15 are expected in 2016, according to RCSD officials.
It’s one thing to make a tasty meal at home, but this was a vastly different challenge. “We had to be creative in how we flavor lunches for some 32,000 kids,” said Jenn Beideman, a policy and research associate for the Healthi Kids Coalition.
Flavor stations offer students everything from “lemon wedges to low sodium garlic powder, oregano, lemon pepper, red chili flakes and balsamic vinegar,” said Beideman. “It’s giving kids other options while adhering to required food guidelines.”
It’s the latest in an ongoing effort. Before championing flavor stations, Healthi Kids partnered with School 28 in a “Lunch is Gross” campaign, helping students advocate for themselves in getting lunch room changes. Students made a video and posted it on teachertube.com. Some 1,100 signatures from parents, students and members of the community asked RCSD to ensure all school food is “fresh, appealing, nutritious and healthy.” According to Beideman, the petition influenced the administration to add $1 million to the food budget.
A 2015 Healthi Kids Food Progress Report used observations and student feedback to recommend other changes and reduce waste. Among the recommendations were fruit and vegetable salad bars and a Youth School Food Advisory Council.
In the spring of 2016, salad bars — funded by the Greater Health Foundation — were phased into nine schools. At the same time, flavor stations were piloted in schools 16, 53, 58 and the School of the Arts.
“They were huge hits in the schools,” said Beideman. “Through lunchroom observations, we heard children saying ‘I want more spice’ or ‘I want [lunch] to taste like my mom’s’ or ‘It tastes bland.’ They also said they wanted more choices in vegetables and fruit, not just apples and bananas.”
The school district had ample reason to be proactive in making healthy and appetizing meals. Research by the University of Rochester Medical Center has indicated that 38 percent of city children, ages 2 to 18, are overweight or obese. Some 84 percent of the school population are eligible for free or reduced lunches.
“Our children are particular about what they eat,” said Gemma Humphries, director of RCSD School Food Services. “They have very high standards in how their food is prepared, how food is served.”
Humphries noted that some school districts modified the USDA guidelines after Congress worked to weaken some of them, but RSCD did not.
She herself reached out to spice maker McCormick to find better alternatives for the flavor stations. “We talked about salt-free options of Mexican seasoning with them since kids like spicy food. We’ve even added Red Hot or Boss Sauce,” Humphries said.
One of the more surprising discoveries that came out the observations of RCSD cafeterias had nothing to do with food.
“We found some schools had no water in the cafeterias,” said Beideman. “The kids had to raise their hands to get a glass of water." So now, the district is in the process of making sure cups of water are available in each school, and has a new goal of providing accessible water stations that include water bottle fillers. To make that happen, some water facilities will have to be retrofitted, Beideman said.
Some people may remain skeptical, arguing that school lunches have always been flavor-challenged. But advocates point to success in other places. One report showed French schoolchildren enjoying a meal that included cucumber and tomato salad, veal marinated with mushrooms, broccoli, a cheese plate and apple tart for dessert.
So yes, more work needs to be done. But these ongoing local efforts are getting produce on students’ plates and more flavor into their food.
It’s all part of the mission of Healthi Kids Coalition, which advocates for better school food, safer play areas, and 60 minutes of in-school activity, among other programs. The group works to improve the quality of children’s lives in partnership with some 30 local agencies, including the Greater Rochester Health Foundation and the Children’s Institute.