Sometimes I get flashbacks from my childhood. You know – like when a whiff of something brings a smell-memory flooding back? Over the past year, I have been working with a group of parents from our school district in a grueling effort to improve the food that is served in our schools every day. And it’s in the middle of meetings with people yelling at each other or when I visit the cafeteria and see boxes and boxes of packaged foods that I hear it. “I think I can, I think I can…” Do you remember the story of the train that chanted that mantra as he worked so hard to climb that hill?
That’s how we feel about our struggle to change school food. But I have to say – I count ourselves as the lucky ones. After years of refusing to work with the community, our food service director has changed. Who knows what triggered it – maybe it was Jamie Oliver, news everywhere about unhealthy children, or maybe even the pleas from the first lady. And really, who cares? We ARE working together as a team now – and that’s what counts.
I thought I’d share our journey with a few photos, Mrs. Q style, to show you where we started and the amazing progress that we have made. Of course, I’m not trying to show off! I’m just showing you what is possible with some time, persistence, flexibility, and a thick skin (which I haven’t figured out yet, but am working on…)
One of the first issues on our agenda was to tackle some of the less-than-wonderful-or-nutritionally-sound packaged items that our kids were eating on a regular basis. Not only did they contain overly processed ingredients, but the packaging was an environmental concern for our group. (Yes, we are a little on the crunchy side – but we might as well try to protect the planet while we are working to protect the health of our kids, right?)
Some of our early progress was to get our food service director to agree to stop buying sugar coated cereals. It is our belief that since the children are eating at school, that we need to provide them an educational message. We didn’t want them going home thinking that we endorsed sugar cereals (or the super-sized bowls that they would probably consume if they were eating them at home).
But our most exciting news was that our elementary schools would be getting salad bars! Not only did that mean that our kids would have access to fresh vegetables, but it ultimately also meant that they would be served an entree and everything else would be served from the salad bar. You know what that means? We could get rid of more packaging!
The food service director hired me and a nutritionist from our group to do educational workshops at our elementary schools to get the kids excited about the salad bars and teach them how to use them safely. We did assemblies, complete with tastings, and the kids were giddy with excitement. But we sure did have a lot to learn…
Some kids thought it would be easier to reach the food if they just climbed inside the salad bar…
But for the most part, the kids did a pretty good job. The parents were very excited about the healthier food options for their children, but it was like pulling teeth to get them to volunteer at lunchtime to lend us a hand and help us manage what was mild chaos…
Some of the good news, despite our challenges, was that we could stop buying everything in packages and could start purchasing in bulk. Carrots, for example, could now be served out of one of the bins in the salad bar. And we no longer needed those annoying little fork packets! All of these small changes end up saving the school district money, in the long run. Instead of buying items that go straight to the garbage AND paying the local waste management company to haul it all away, more of what we purchase gets used and there is less garbage.
Our struggle has been mighty, but our students are enjoying the benefits. We still have a long way to go and have a big wish list that includes the removal of trans fats, artificial colors and high fructose corn syrup from the items that we serve our students. And eventually, we’d even love to serve milk in bulk.