10 Reasons to Ignore School Lunch Haters and Support #RealSchoolFood

By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD

To all the mommy bloggers, food celebrities, academic researchers, restaurant chains and media channels who want to blame School Lunch for the ills of the US food system (while promoting their own products, endorsements and programs), it’s time to STOP. Trying to refute your inaccurate claims, staged photos, out-date sound bites and negative descriptions is a waste of precious time we could be working together to support #RealSchoolFood for real hungry kids all across America. If you really want to improve school meals, here are 10 effective ways to support the hard-working school nutrition HEROES who are reshaping local and national food systems, teaching kids about where food comes from, and feeding millions of children their best meals of the day – every day – in thousands of schools across our country.

#1: Please get some real photos of #RealSchoolFood. Your staged, stock and decades-old examples do a terrible disservice to the dedicated chefs and cooks who offer gorgeous cafeteria lines, produce bars and grab-n-go options to students every day. Need help finding photos? We’ve got your back with thousands of photos on Facebook and PinterestTray Talk also features #RealSchoolFood from hundreds of districts. These gorgeous salads are from Polk County Schools in Florida.

Polk Salads

New Chopped Salads on the menu this Fall! Asian Chicken and Buffalo Chicken. Polk School Nutrition, Polk County, Florida

#2: Please move on from ‘ketchup is a vegetable.’ Seriously people, check your facts. This was a stupid proposal in 1981 which never made it into a regulation. Before you complain, learn the details of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010. There are specific requirements for five different vegetable sub-groups, including Red-Orange. This is how schools are promoting colorful produce and #RealSchoolFood to students all across Tennessee this fall.

These gorgeous banners, shown here by Chelsea Cordes, RDN, in Shelby County Schools, are a healthy collaboration between the Department of Education and the Governor’s Foundation for a Healthy Tennessee.

#3: Please read the research comparing school lunch to lunches brought from home. Studies from Baylor (TX), Tufts (MA) and Virginia Tech (VA) confirm that lunches brought from home rarely meet the tough nutrition standards now required in all USDA school meals programs. Many contained sugary drinks and snack foods that cannot be sold as #RealSchoolFood.

A Tufts study published Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed lunches brought from home had lots of packaged food and sugary drinks

A Tufts study published Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed lunches brought from home had lots of packaged food and sugary drinks

#4: Please dig deeper into the causes of food waste in schools. Kids throw away perfectly picked organic oranges and bento box baby bananas with cute notes written on them – just like they throw away school lunch items. Two of the best solutions to reducing food waste in cafeterias work for #RealSchoolFood and lunches brought from home: Recess Before Lunch and Longer Lunch Periods

#5: Please recognize that school nutrition professionals frequently do not have needed administrative support. School nutrition heroes have a tough balancing act with  complex government regulations, limited budgets and limited input into school schedules that affect recess options and the length of lunch periods. Like you, they care deeply about feeding children well – and are trying to do the best they can with what they have. Maybe you can work together on a grant for a salad bar or school garden? Many of the #RealSchoolFood veggies served in Kalispell, Montana, schools come directly from the school garden.

Kalispell, Montana, Schools feature greens grown at school. A fabulous director and FoodCorps Montana work together to grow ‪#‎SchoolGardens‬, serve ‪#‎RealSchoolFood‬ and nourish healthy eating habits.

Kalispell, Montana, Schools feature greens grown at school. A fabulous director and FoodCorps Montana work together to grow ‪#‎SchoolGardens‬, serve ‪#‎RealSchoolFood‬ and nourish healthy eating habits.

#6: Please talk WITH rather than AT school nutrition directors. Arrange a friendly meeting with your local nutrition director. Find out about their everyday challenges and what changes they would make if they could – maybe new equipment or more local foods. Find out how you can work together to do what’s best for kids. If you look for common ground, you are likely to find it. Believe every school should have a school garden? Get out there and help a school grow one for #RealSchoolFood to be served in your district. The amazing Waterford Edible Schoolyard has dozens of amazing volunteers, especially during the busy summer months.

THANKS to the Waterford Edible Schoolyard: "72 pounds delivered to the kitchen today - bringing our total to 175+ lbs since June! The peas are in with a vengeance , tomatos are starting to ripen, and we can't seem to pick the cucumber and zucchini fast enough smile emoticon."

THANKS to the Waterford Edible Schoolyard: “72 pounds delivered to the kitchen today – bringing our total to 175+ lbs since June! The peas are in with a vengeance, tomatoes are starting to ripen, and we can’t seem to pick the cucumber and zucchini fast enough smile emoticon.”

#7: Please be realistic because nutrition perfection is just not possible on $1.50-1.75 per meal. That’s how much the average school district has to spend directly on food. While meal prices and USDA reimbursement rates provide more money, that also goes to pay for labor, equipment and overhead costs. If you want all organic, GMO-free, clean-label, local, scratch-cooked meals, you are going to have to help schools lobby local, state and federal decisions makers to provide more money for school meals. 2015 is a critical year for child nutrition and childhood food insecurity. This fall Congress will reauthorize funding for the critical local programs that support healthy children, schools and communities, including School Breakfast Programs, National School Lunch Programs, WIC Programs and Farm to School Programs. 2015 is a time to advocate for fresh, local, delicious #RealSchoolFood rather than pointing fingers and telling families “avoid school lunch like the plague.” THIS is #RealSchoolFood lunch in Greenville, South Carolina.

On August 20, 2015, Greenville County Schools students will have the option to choose from Turkey Pot Roast with a fresh baked roll, Scratch-made Mac-N-Cheese, a Fresh Fruit and Veggie Bar with four options of fresh fruit and four options of steamed vegetables, and ice cold milk!

On August 20, 2015, Greenville County Schools students will have the option to choose from Turkey Pot Roast with a fresh baked roll, Scratch-made Mac-N-Cheese, a Fresh Fruit and Veggie Bar with four options of fresh fruit and four options of steamed vegetables, and ice cold milk!

#8: Please eat a #RealSchoolFood lunch. Send a message with your location to SchoolMealsThatRock@gmail.com and I’ll recommend a #RealSchoolFood cafeteria nearby you can enjoy hot lunch or a grab-and-go salad like these from Provo School District, Provo, Utah.

Grab n Go Salads at the secondary level and Chef Salads at the elementary level. First day choices first day delicious!

Grab n Go Salads at the secondary level and Chef Salads at the elementary level. First day choices first day delicious!

#9: Please consider the consequences of your criticisms. Be respectful and ditch blanket descriptions of school food like “hideous piles of indistinguishable vegetables” and “avoid like the plague.” When you use negative and judgmental language, it makes parents feel badly about letting their children eat at school, even if they can’t afford to pack a meal from home. Dedicated school nutrition heroes deserve your respect and thanks for all their training and hard work to feed kids #RealSchoolFood every day. This is why they do it – smiling face of hungry students, like this girl in Bradley County Schools, Cleveland, Tennessee.

North Lee Elementary Pre-K. Beautiful, healthy tray for smiling faces.

North Lee Elementary Pre-K. Beautiful, healthy tray for smiling faces.

#10: Please be transparent about the companies who sponsor your post or blog or program. If your blog ends with photos of branded food products and lunch boxes, please indicate if they are sponsors or advertisers. I do consulting work for a variety of agricultural groups and a few companies, which are all disclosed below. Not a single one of them supported this post or provided input in any way.

  • Board Member/Advisory Panel
    • American Association of School Administrators (AASA) Breakfast Council
    • Kellogg’s Breakfast Council
  • Consultant
    • US Department of Agriculture and Team Nutrition Program
    • Multiple state departments of education and agriculture
    • California Walnut Commission
    • The Mushroom Council
    • Cherry Marketing Institute
    • American Egg Board
    • CLIF bar
    • Chobani Yogurt
    • Bush Beans
  • Speakers Bureau
    • National Dairy Council and state/regional dairy councils
    • National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and state beef councils

10 Ways School Lunch Haters Can Get Off Their Soapboxes and Support #RealSchoolFood

By Dayle Hayes, MS, RD

To all the mommy bloggers, food celebrities, academic researchers, restaurant chains and media channels who want to blame School Lunch for the ills of the US food system (while promoting their own products, endorsements and programs), I’ve had it. Trying to refute your inaccurate claims, staged photos, out-date sound bites  and negative descriptions is a waste of precious time we could be working together to support #RealSchoolFood for real hungry kids all across America. Really want to improve school meals? Here are 10 effective ways to support the hard-working people who are reshaping local and national food systems, teaching kids about where food comes from, and feeding millions of children their best meals of the day – every day in thousands of schools across our country.

#1: Please get some real photos of #RealSchoolFood. Your staged, stock and decades-old examples do a terrible disservice to the dedicated chefs and cooks who offer gorgeous cafeteria lines, produce bars and grab-n-go options to students every day. Need help finding photos? We’ve got your back with thousands of photos on Facebook and Pinterest (some with recipes like this Roasted Edamame SaladTray Talk also features #RealSchoolFood from hundreds of districts.

Eating their way through the alphabet for National Nutrition Month, Windham Raymond School District (RSU#14) in Maine, served Roasted Edamame Salad (adapted from an Alton Brown Recipe).

Eating through the alphabet for National Nutrition Month, Windham Raymond School District (RSU#14) in Maine, served Roasted Edamame Salad (adapted from an Alton Brown Recipe).

#2: Please move on from ‘ketchup is a vegetable.’ Seriously people, check your facts. This was a stupid proposal in 1981 which never made it into a regulation. Before you complain, learn the details of the Healthy, Hungry-Free Kids Act of 2010. There are specific requirements for five different vegetable sub-groups, including Red-Orange.

Sautéed and Steamed Georgia-Grown Green Beans and Tomatoes, Eat Healthy Eat Local Eat at Carrollton City Schools, Carrollton, Georgia·

Sautéed and Steamed Georgia-Grown Green Beans and Tomatoes, Eat Healthy Eat Local Eat at Carrollton City Schools, Carrollton, Georgia·

#3: Please read the research comparing school lunch to lunches brought from home. Studies from Baylor (TX), Tufts (MA) and Virginia Tech (VA) confirm that lunches brought from home rarely meet the tough nutrition standards now now required in all USDA school meals programs. Many contained sugary drinks that cannot be sold in schools.

A Tufts study published Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed lunches brought from home had lots of packaged food and sugary drinks

A Tufts study published Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics showed lunches brought from home had lots of packaged food and sugary drinks

#4: Please dig deeper into food waste in schools. Kids throw away perfectly picked organic oranges and bento box baby bananas with cute notes written on them – just like they throw away school lunch items. Two of the biggest solutions to food waste in cafeterias work for school lunches and lunches brought from home: Recess Before Lunch and Longer Lunch Periods

#5: Please recognize that school nutrition professionals frequently do not have needed administrative support. School nutrition heroes have a tough balancing act with  complex government regulations, limited budgets and limited input into school schedules that affect recess options and the length of lunch periods. Like you, they care deeply about feeding children well – and are trying to do the best they can with what they have. Maybe you can work together on a grant for a salad bar or school garden.

Poudre School District, Fort Collins. Colorado, offers daily produce bars with extensive choices.

Poudre School District, Fort Collins. Colorado, offers daily produce bars with extensive choices.

#6: Please talk WITH rather than AT school nutrition directors. Arrange a friendly meeting with your local nutrition director. Find out about their everyday challenges and what changes they would make if they could – maybe new equipment or more local foods. Find out how you can work together to do what’s best for kids. If you look for common ground, you are likely to find it. Believe every school should have a school garden? Get out there and help a school grow one.

Colonial School District, New Castle, Delaware, gets middle students excited about planting and growing vegetables.

Colonial School District, New Castle, Delaware, gets middle students excited about planting and growing vegetables.

#7: Please be realistic because nutrition perfection is just not possible on $1.50-1.75 per meal. That’s how much the average school district has to spend directly on food. While meal prices and USDA reimbursement rates provide more money, that also goes to pay for labor, equipment and overhead costs. If you want all organic, GMO-free, clean-label, local, scratch-cooked meals, you are going to have to help schools lobby local, state and federal decisions makers to provide more money for school meals. 2015 is a critical year for child nutrition and childhood food insecurity. This year Congress will reauthorize funding for the critical local programs that support healthy children, schools and communities, including School Breakfast Programs, National School Lunch Programs, WIC Programs and Farm to School Programs. 2015 is a time to advocate for fresh, local, delicious #RealSchoolFood rather than pointing fingers and telling families “avoid school lunch like the plague.”

Oakland Unified School District, Nutrition Services participates in CALIFORNIA THURSDAYS™ Day, along with many of the state's largest districts. So many delicious reasons to SMILE about ‪#‎SchoolMeals‬ in OUSD!

Oakland Unified School District, Nutrition Services participates in CALIFORNIA THURSDAYS™ along with many of the state’s largest districts.

#8: Please eat a #RealSchoolFood lunch. If you need a recommendation for a school cafeteria near you, send me an email at SchoolMealsThatRock@gmail.com.

Trish McDonald from Sky Oaks Elementary School (Minnesota District 191) sent this, saying that their kitchen "makes the BEST Vegetarian salads!"

Trish McDonald, Sky Oaks Elementary School (Minnesota District 191) says they “makes the BEST Vegetarian salads!”

#9: Please consider the consequences of your criticisms. Be respectful and ditch blanket descriptions of school food like “hideous piles of indistinguishable vegetables” and “avoid like the plague.” When you use negative and judgmental language, it makes parents feel badly about letting their children eat at school, even if they can’t afford to pack a meal from home. It also makes dedicated school nutrition heroes feel like just giving up.

The are no hideous piles of veggie in Reynolds School District, Portland, Oregon. There are beautiful cups of eye-appealing produce for students to grab.

There are no ‘hideous piles’ of veggies in Reynolds School District, Portland, Oregon. There are beautiful cups of eye-appealing produce for students to grab.

#10: Please be transparent about the companies who sponsor your post or blog or program. If your blog ends with photos of branded food products and lunch boxes, please indicate if they are sponsors or advertisers. I do consulting work for a variety of agricultural groups and a few companies, which are all disclosed below. Not a single one of them supported this post or provided input in any way.

  • Board Member/Advisory Panel
    • American Association of School Administrators (AASA) Breakfast Council
    • Kellogg’s Breakfast Council
  • Consultant
    • US Department of Agriculture and Team Nutrition Program
    • Multiple state departments of education and agriculture
    • Idaho Barley Commission
    • Mushroom Council
    • American Egg Board
    • CLIF bar
    • Chobani Yogurt
    • Bush Beans
  • Speakers Bureau
    • National Dairy Council and state/regional dairy councils
    • National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and state beef councils

Eat, Play, Learn: Y is for YAY!

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.

Y is for YAY! 

I admit that I was struggling with what to use for Y – and then my latest blog for the Huffington Post was published today on the Parents page: 6 Secrets Every Parent (and School) Should Know About Academic Success, by Dayle Hayes, MS, RD. Hope you will take time to read it online – or below!

You would do anything to insure your children’s academic success, right? Helping with homework, meeting with teachers, arranging for tutors — whatever it takes to give them that little extra boost. You also care about your kids’ health — and want them to eat right and get enough physical activity to stay healthy.

What you may not know is how closely connected academic success is to what kids eat and how active they are. Experts in both education and health are beginning to realize that more attention to children’s bodies will also help their brains work better. Whether you call it the Learning Connection or the Wellness Impact, the message to parents and schools is clear: Eating smarter and moving more are essential for optimal performance and behavior in the classroom. Here are six ways you and your school district can work together to help all students succeed.

1. Start with Breakfast, Every Day

We all know that mornings can be crazy busy and some kids just aren’t hungry before school. But, this is a no brainer — literally! Without fuel for morning classes, students cannot focus, concentrate and learn. At home or school (or even in a car or bus), breakfast changes everything. Any breakfast is better than no breakfast and a bowl of whole grain cereal with milk and fruit can actually be a good source of key nutrients. Even if your kids eat at home in the morning, your support for school breakfast is critical for those children who need it. One kid who is too hungry to learn can disrupt an entire classroom. On the other hand, breakfast in the classroom, like this one in Reynoldsburg (OH), helps students fuel up for learning.

2014-02-20-3Desk.JPG

2. Safe Routes to School

Some of the hottest research on activity and brain function comes out of Dr. Charles Hillman’s lab at the University of Illinois. Brain imaging and other tests show that a simple 20-minute walk can improve a student’s performance in both reading and math. Takeaway for caring parents? Walking (or biking) to school means your kids arrive with brains that are ready to learn. Concerned about their safety? Get your workout by walking or biking with them — or get involved in a Safe Routes to School group. For example, our community is having a Walk-Bike Summit in March.

3. Active Recess Before Lunch

Physical activity at recess is good for kids brains (and their bodies) for the exactly the same reasons as walking or biking to school. However, recess before lunch has been shown to have some other very important benefits. When children are active before coming to the cafeteria, they eat better and behave better. Studies show that they actually eat more entrée, vegetables and fruits — and drink more milk. When kids rush through lunch so they can run out to play, lots of food goes into the garbage can and students are short-changed on afternoon fuel. Breakfast helps children learn in the morning, but lunch is just as necessary for afternoon classes.

4. Comfortable Cafeterias

As just noted, there is a critical academic reason to be concerned about those half-eaten lunches that your children bring home — and the full garbage cans in some school cafeterias. Sadly, many cafeterias are not pleasant, positive places to enjoy a meal. The good news is that they can be. All they need is a bit of bright décor and adults who are trained to encourage appropriate conversations rather than just patrolling between the tables and telling everyone to hurry up and eat. Parents can help create Comfortable Cafeterias by eating with their children and making positive, pleasant mealtimes part of a local wellness policy.

5. Classroom Energizers

Remember that brain research about the benefits of a 20-minute walk? Short bouts of aerobic activity in the classroom can also work wonders. A short activity break re-energizers young brains and their bodies too. Research shows that a brain break can be especially valuable when transitioning from one topic to another. Free online programs like Jammin’ Minute and Move to Learn can bring fun videos and activity tips into any classroom. Check with your children’s teachers to see if they are taking advantage of this effective and educational technique. Teachers are finding that the few minutes spent on activity actually add minutes of instructional time and putting a smarter student in the chair.

6. Smart After-School Snacks

Since children are all-day learners, they need regular refueling throughout the day, including after-school snacks — for sports, homework and academic enrichment programs. Many snack foods (candy, chips, soft drinks, etc.) do not offer the lasting power that kids need. USDA’s Smart Snacks in Schools regulations are coming to school-day sales this fall — and it is important that students have access to the same nutrient-rich foods after the school day ends. Fruits and veggies are always good, but protein power is even more important. Yogurt, string cheese, nuts, nut butters, sliced deli meats, beef jerky, hard cooked eggs and hummus can all be incorporated into at home or on-the-go smart snack routines. Programs like Fuel Up to Play 60 can engage students as leaders, like these middle schoolers in Naches (WA), in making changes in what their school offers for meals, snacks and physical activity.

2014-02-20-Naches.jpg
Next time you review a report card or discuss your child’s performance at school, be sure that nutrition and fitness are part of the conversation. Using the Learning Connection to your advantage can make a significant impact on their school success.

Eat. Play. Learn. T is for TIME

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.

T is for TIME

Let’s be honest: Many school cafeterias are not conducive to a pleasant dining experience  (that’s why few adults want to eat in them). Many barely give kids enough TIME to eat and drink what’s on their tray. I have been in a few school lunchrooms with the feel of a prison – adults patrolling the aisles, prohibitions on talking to your friends, and stoplights when things get “out of hand.”

The most important question about school breakfast and lunch meals is how do we get the food into kids? My manta is that is it only nutrition when a child eats or drinks it. If school food goes into a trashcan, it’s garbage, not nutrition.

If we want children who are well-nourished and ready to learn, we have to create more positive and pleasant mealtimes in schools. If we truly believe that school nutrition programs are critical for children’s overall health, we have to give more TIME and attention to HOW we feed children in school as well as to WHAT we feed them. Here are three tried-and-true tips for getting more fuel for learning into students and less food into trashcans:

  1. Schedule recess before lunch. Research shows that the best sequence for children is playing first, then eating, and finally learning in the classroom.
  2. Establish reasonable ‘eat-tiquette’ expectations. Like anything else in school, children can learn to behave well in the cafeteria.
  3. Provide TIME to eat and adult role models. Create a comfortable cafeteria where administrators, teachers, aides, parents and grandparents want to eat with kids.

We need a new approach to HOW meals are served in school cafeterias. The “herd-em-in/herd-em-out” mentality is not the path toward healthful eating habits. If our goal is competent eaters who make smart choices for lifetime health, we have to do better.  We have to allow enough TIME for children to eat in pleasant, positive places, like this dining room in MacFarlane Park Elementary Magnet School, Tampa, Florida. Every child should have at least 15 to 20 minutes of seat TIME to enjoy a school lunch.

MacFarlane Park Elementary Magnet School located in Tampa, Florida

MacFarlane Park Elementary Magnet School located in Tampa, Florida

Eat. Play. Learn. R is for RECESS

To celebrate the publication of Proceedings of the Learning Connection Summit: Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Student Achievement, I’m offering a short daily post during February on the ABCs of the health and academics.

R is for RECESS (Before Lunch) 

Physical activity at RECESS is good for kids brains (and their bodies) for the same reasons as walking/biking to school and PE classes are. According to the 2012  American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement on The Crucial Role of Recess in School:

“… safe and well-supervised recess offers cognitive, social, emotional, and physical benefits that may not be fully appreciated when a decision is made to diminish it. Recess is unique from, and a complement to, physical education—not a substitute for it. The American Academy of Pediatrics believes that recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development and, as such, it should not be withheld for punitive or academic reasons.”

RECESS before lunch has been shown to have some additional very important benefits. When children are active before coming to the cafeteria, they eat better and behave better. Studies show that they actually eat more entrée, vegetables and fruits – and drink more milk. When kids rush through lunch so they can run out to play, lots of food goes into the garbage can and students are short-changed on afternoon fuel. Breakfast helps children learn in the morning, but lunch is just as necessary for afternoon classes.

I’m proud to say that Montana Team Nutrition has been real leader in RECESS Before Lunch, publishing both A Guide to Success and research: Scheduling Recess Before Lunch: Exploring the Benefits and Challenges in Montana Schools.

Montana Team Nutrition Recess Before Lunch (RBL) Guide

Montana Team Nutrition Recess Before Lunch (RBL) Guide