I was profoundly affected by my school breakfast visit Thursday morning – to Senior High School in Billings, Montana (1,900+ students, 31% free-reduced). I tried to capture it throughout the day in School Meals That Rock Facebook photos postings and some School Meals Rock tweets, but what I saw and felt was difficult to express 140 characters at a time.
Much of my work is fairly abstract – presentations about marketing healthy school meals, webinars about implementing new meal patterns, and interviews about nutrients that kids are missing. This visit to a large high school cafeteria for breakfast was much more important and straightforward – it was simply about feeding hungry teenagers.
The food was great. While it exceeded current USDA guidelines, the menu might have disappointed the vociferous school meal critics who sometimes seem to seek nutrition perfection. Some of the fruit was canned (peaches and pineapple in juice); there were corn dogs (whole grain, low-fat, turkey, but still corn dogs); and there were ready-to-eat cereals rather than plain oatmeal.
There was also fresh fruit (bananas, apples, and oranges), yogurt parfaits, and an amazing made-to-order burrito bar with locally sourced tortillas and sausage crumbles, plus eggs, spinach, jalapenos, onions, and salsa. While not organic-free-range nutrition perfection, it was wholesome, healthy, and prepared by “lunch ladies” who greeted kids by name with a smile and “welcome to our café” attitude.
In the bright sunny Senior High cafeteria, I was especially struck by three things:
- First, the atmosphere was like the pleasant bustle of a coffee shop with lots of conversation, but no loud voices or inappropriate interactions. The school police officer came in – to talk with kids and have breakfast himself – rather than to “patrol” or enforce proper behavior. He said, “It’s like this every morning.”
- There were all kinds of kids – with cowboy hats, updo hairstyles, multiple piercings, and athletic gear – all there to do one thing: eat breakfast. Best of all, there were many girls with smart plates filled with protein, fruit, and milk. With all the news about disordered eating, it is heartening to see young women enjoying breakfast.
- When I asked several teens what they liked best about school breakfast, they looked a little surprised, because it was obvious to them. “I eat here almost everyday because it’s free and it’s good.” “Some kids don’t have money to eat and when I eat here, I don’t have to listen to my stomach growl all morning.”
On USDA’s “What’s on Your Plate” Day, these students were not looking for culinary perfection, steel cut oats, or exotic tropical fruit. They needed a balanced breakfast in a safe and welcoming place – they got that and much more. Next time you are tempted to pick apart a school menu or criticize the cafeteria offerings, go to your local high school and take a look at things from a hungry teen’s point-of-view.
Find out what changes the program has already made and what they would like to do if they had more support. Compare what the kids can enjoy in a school breakfast to those eating chips, pop, and candy from the corner store. Offer ideas to leverage USDA’s $1.94 reimbursement (food + labor) for even more nutritious options that teens will eat.
Better yet, get engaged with the school and the kids. Explore what you could do to help promote smart choices for successful athletes or start a school food pantry for the students in need. There is a brand-new food pantry at Senior High – and everyone is surprised by how many students are using it.