A struggle is underway across the country to improve school food and child nutrition. A primary motivation is the bad news that children and adolescents are becoming increasing overweight, which has a number of negative health implications. The good news is that people realize there’s a problem and are finding ways to raise awareness, implement programs, and change behaviors. But it won’t happen overnight.
Schools have a unique opportunity to help children improve their understanding and behavior around food choices, nutrition and health. Obviously, poor eating habits among children cannot be blamed on schools alone, nor can schools effectively address the issue in isolation. The messages that kids get from media, advertising, food packaging, as well as parental and peer behavior all contribute to the problem. However, schools can play a key role in the community-wide efforts that are needed to improve children’s diets.
The opportunity exists to connect the cafeteria and the classroom through food education at all levels, in ways that conform to the Vermont Framework of Learning Standards. Innovative progams are underway across Vermont to seize this opportunity. ‘FEED’ (Food Education Every Day) developed by Foodworks, NOFA-VT, and Shelburne Farms (with funding from the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program) has worked with dozens of Vermont schools since 1998. FEED helps classroom teachers develop curriculum that incorporates food, local farms, and nutrition, and it provides training for food service personnel. ‘Feed Your Head’ is a program of the Brattleboro Food Co-op that provides nutrition education modules and discounts on healthy snack foods to area classroom teachers. ‘Reinventing the Meal’ offers nutrition and food system education to schools in Windsor. And there are heroic kitchen staff working in dozens of Vermont schools that have found ways to deliver healthy, nutritious meals despite limited budgets and inadequate cooking and storage facilities.
School food is not small potatoes. Vermont has about 101,000 students attending school up to 12th grade. Vermont spends over $30 million annually on school meals; $22 million comes from local school districts and meal payments, and about $8 million is from the Federal government. The average cost to prepare a school lunch was $2.26 in 2003. About 44% of that was for the food itself. Students were charged an average of $1.56 per lunch. Of the 51% of students that participate in the lunch program, 60% paid full price, 10% paid reduced price and 29% got free lunches. The cost of school meals is subsidized significantly by the free food provided to schools through the USDA’s Commodity Foods program.
School food programs in Vermont are as diverse as the towns and cities in which they are located. Some schools buy and prepare their food independently, under the supervision of a school cook or food service director. Others contract with food service management companies that have their own contracts with food distributors. In 2003 there were 88 Vermont schools with a total enrollment of 31,363 that were served by food management service companies.
Greater use of local foods in schools has the potential to improve child nutrition as part of an effort to incorporate fresher, less processed food into school meals and snacks. Combined with nutrition education, farm visits, school gardens, and education in the classroom, children can develop healthy eating habits that will last a lifetime. Some Vermont schools already buy a portion of their food from local farms, either directly or through Vermont-based food distributors. However, farmers I questioned about this indicated that school food sales were a small part of their overall business and not very profitable, but they were a positive way to connect to local communities. Similarly, food distributors indicate that in most cases providing fresh food to schools is not very profitable because of the small average size of the orders and the amount of travel time required.
The obstacles to improving school food are numerous and complex, but they can be overcome. I recently completed a study of school food and here some recommendations.
* Every school board should develop a school food policy in collaboration with the community, faculty, food service staff, parents and students. The policy should be as specific as possible, setting clear goals and guidelines.
* State agencies and boards should establish long term, measurable objectives around improvements in child nutrition, related health issues, and dietary behavior in schools.
* The State should provide financial assistance to schools to help them make positive changes in their meal programs. This need not be a mandate, but rather: incentives for achieving certain goals; voluntary enrollment for specific products or service; or competitive grants for implementation of self-identified improvements.
* A simple financial incentive should be offered by state government to assist schools with the purchase of fresh local food, allowing flexibility so many different schools can participate.
* Schools should not ‘indirectly’ promote consumption of unhealthy foods and drinks such as candy or soda, via poster advertising, scoreboard decals, or equipment or uniform logos.
* Special events, bake sales, classroom parties, etc. should emphasize or include healthy food choices. Guidelines should be developed and distributed to help parents and volunteers do this.
* Vending machines in schools should contain only healthy drink choices: water, milk, or 100% juices. They should contain healthy snack alternatives to non-nutritional foods like chips and candy. (The New England Dairy Council helps eligible schools buy vending machines for dairy products such as flavored milks, yogurts and cheeses.)
* School food service staff should have a good understanding of menu planning and food preparation as it relates to diet and child nutrition. Position descriptions need to require this knowledge and professional development opportunities need to be encouraged to strengthen it.
A full copy of the 28-page report is available on-line: “An Overview of School Food in Vermont"