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Envisioning a Better School Lunch

It's been 10 years since FoodFit CEO and Founder Ellen Haas rolled up her sleeves and set about making school lunches healthier and better tasting. She reflects on her experience as US Agriculture under secretary and the work that lies ahead to ensure American children get nutritious school lunches.

A Better School Lunch

One of my top objectives when I was appointed USDA under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services in 1993 was to reform the national school lunch program. I knew from my experiences as a consumer advocate that it was woefully behind the times. Science had blazed ahead, but the nutrition standards for school lunches, eaten by 26 million American children each day, hadn't been updated since 1946. The average lunch was fried fish, chicken or steak; French fries; and mushy, green, canned peas.

Right off the bat, I launched a campaign called Fresh Start to encourage schools to buy fresh produce. At that time, less than two percent of the fruits and vegetables served in the lunch program were fresh. We teamed up with the Defense Department, which already had a network in place to distribute produce to military commissaries nationwide. We were able to increase--by more than 20 times--the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables offered in the meal program.

School lunches didn't meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. To the contrary, they were well over the recommendations for fat and sodium. Back then, the nation's obesity epidemic was not as fully documented, but it was known that a high-fat diet in children led to problems of childhood obesity, which led to problems with diabetes, heart disease and cancer. School lunch reform was in fact part of larger obesity prevention strategy by President Clinton.

It Takes a Village

To figure out how best to reform the program, I held hearings across the country from Atlanta to Chicago to Los Angeles and heard testimony from parents, nutritionists, physicians, chefs and others. At the same time, I ate school lunches in almost every state in the country and talked to people at the grassroots level.

It was truly an amazing experience to be at the center of this wave of change, surrounded and reinforced by passionate, caring, energized and intelligent people.

It quickly became clear that it wasn't enough to make the lunches healthier. USDA also needed to educate children about nutrition and motivate them to make better food choices. Children's eating habits are formed by age 12, so it became critical from a public health standpoint. USDA subsequently partnered with kid-familiar organizations like the Walt Disney Company, Scholastic Inc. and the National PTA to get a healthy eating message across.

Chefs Pitch In

The food needed to taste good too. To that end, 500 chefs from across the country volunteered their time and expertise. Some instructed food service workers; others brought farmer's markets into the schools.

So many FoodFit chefs were among them, including Michael Lomonaco, Susan Feniger, Mary Sue Milliken, Michael Romano, Allen Susser and Nancy Silverton, as well as Alice Waters, who recently pushed to create a school lunch curriculum for the entire Berkley school district.

School Lunch Standards Updated

The fruits of our labor came in 1995, when the nutrition standards were officially updated, and schools began offering healthier meals that were lower in fat and sodium and had more fruits and vegetables.

Unfortunately, that's not the end of the story. Due to a loophole in the law that weakened compliance, thousands of schools still fail to meet the healthier standards.

Is Your Child's School Serving Healthy Lunches?

Parents can make a big difference in whether their child's school offers nutritious lunches. A lot of schools still have a long way to go to meet the healthier standards, and what it will take is strong leadership, incentives and old-fashioned jawboning.

Here's what you can do:

  • Monitor the food your child is getting as part of the school lunch program.
  • Check with the head of food service or the school principal or the PTA to see whether school lunches meet the government's Dietary Guidelines.
  • Draw up a petition or write a letter saying you want your school to have healthier food choices and collect signatures.
  • Encourage your school to set up a salad bar if it doesn't have one. Salad bars and fruit bars have been sweeping the country.
  • Mount nutrition education campaigns in the cafeteria, like an apple tasting in the fall or a poster contest where the children draw pictures of food and talk about making healthy food choices.
  • Bring a farmer's market to your school. The more kids know about different fruits and vegetables, the more they will explore them and eat them. Make it fun.


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