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

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Protein Recipes for Success

If you’d like a few new entrées for your 2015 menus, I have three resources that you should definitely check out. At school (and home), proteins are usually at the center of the tray or plate. With these on-trend recipes, you can please your customers and effectively manage your school food budget at the same time.

It has been my pleasure to work with the American Egg Board (AEB) over the past couple of years. The Incredible Edible Egg truly is a popular, versatile, cost-effective way to add protein to any school meal. In the Eggs in Schools White Paper, I discuss these top three reasons to incorporate eggs: (1) Popular egg dishes can help increase Average Daily Participation (ADP); (2) The affordability of eggs allows more menu flexibility; and (3) Eggs provide versatile vegetarian and gluten-free options.

With input from hundreds of school nutrition professionals and the creativity of Malissa Marsden, AEB now offers dozens Egg Recipes for breakfast, lunch and snacks. Complete preparation instructions, meal equivalencies and nutrition analysis are provided. You can shake things up with this fun salad or power up with a Protein Box Lunch K-8

EggThere is also plenty of protein power – along with layers of ethnic flavors – in the nutrient-rich school lunch beef recipes developed by The Beef Checkoff. To help schools include high-quality protein, like beef, on the menu, I was honored to work with team of culinary experts who developed five new beef ground recipes that can be easily incorporated into any school lunch menu. The recipes were tested by real school cooks in real kitchens with real students – and you can read their comments online.

While I like all five recipes, the Sweet Potato Beef Mash-up is my personal favorite with  southwest-seasoned ground beef and sweet potatoes served hash-style and topped with a mixture of plain yogurt and hot pepper sauce. It can be served in a whole wheat tortilla or in Romaine lettuce cups for gluten-free option.

Beef

The final protein resource comes from the sea – from another commodity board whose product is available as a USDA Food – the Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers. From the more familiar Fish Tacos to an innovative Alaska Pollock Po’Boy, there are some delicious looking recipes on this site. I especially like the fact that they include sauces and side dishes for each of the pollock entrees. Like the other commodity groups featured, the pollock producers offer success stories and wonderful recipes that meet the meal pattern guidelines. There’s nothing fishy here – just proven ways to help students enjoy the health benefits of seafood at a reasonable cost and they can help with merchandising too.

Pollock

 

Honestly, there is no reason to keep serving the same recipes cycle after cycle – with all the recipes and resources available online, it’s easy to mix-up your menus and offer new, exciting dishes to your customers!

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: #MerryChristmas from the New York Times

Jane Brody, longtime New York Times columnist, cookbook author and all nutrition guru has just sent all school nutrition programs an early Christmas present. It came wrapped in a 12/22/2014, Personal Health column called “Why Cafeteria Food Is the Best.” A version of the article appeared in print on 12/23/2014, on page D5 of the New York edition with the headline: Food From Home Fails Nutrition Test.

In fact, Ms. Brody did not say anything dramatically new; she merely reviewed the results of several school nutrition studies published in the past year. She also did not say anything different that what you or I say multiple times a day. This column is important because of WHO wrote it – a respected, authoritative voice in America’s nutrition life – and because of WHERE it was published – one of the most influential newspapers in the world.

Jane Brody, Personal Health, Why Cafeteria Food Is the Best, NYT, 12/22/2014

Jane Brody, Personal Health, Why Cafeteria Food Is the Best, NYT, 12/22/2014

You don’t have to read the whole thing now – it’s Christmas Eve and you need to spend time with your family and friends. BUT, here is what you need to do when you head back to school on January 5, 2015.

  • Print a PDF of the online article for your files. (Use the print version if you live in NYC and happen to have a copy.) You can do this right from the PRINT command at the link above.
  • Forward the link and attach a copy of the PDF (or deliver a hard copy) to your superintendent, chair of your district school board, and any school meal ‘bashers’ in your community.
  • Use the links in the article to download copies of the research articles that Brody cites. Read them carefully, save them in your files and use them to pitch a story to your local media about why “Cafeteria Food is the Best.”

But, Dayle, it’s Christmas Eve and you just said that we should be with our family and friends. NO worries – you don’t have to download or read anything today. I’ve done all the downloading for you – and am going to remind you in January. That’s my Christmas present to you!!

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Holiday Fruits and Veggies = FUN

Social media has been full of holiday food art. Even ChooseMyPlate.gov got into the act with a very fun snowman sandwich on popcorn snow next to a pea pod tree. While there’s plenty of cute Christmas sweets and treats floating around out there, I’m personally most impressed with the already-very-busy ‘lunch ladies’ and food dudes who go out of their way (maybe on their own time) to make fruits and vegetables special for children. This wonderful winter scene came from Maureen Williams Voll, at Saint Patrick School, Terre Haute, Indiana. I know that Maureen struggles to find even a few minutes for art, so this is all the more impressive: “A little holiday food art before we head off for vacation. The kids have been asking for food art, as we haven’t done any in a while. Our gift to them, and they LOVED it!

Veggie Car and House, St. Patrick's School, Terre Haute, Indiana

Veggie Car and House, St. Patrick’s School, Terre Haute, Indiana

This simple broccoli Christmas tree was decoration on the serving line at West Chatham Elementary today in Savannah-Chatham County Public Schools, Georgia. Thanks to Director Lydia Martin for proudly sharing what her staff had created.

West Chatham Elementary (GA), Broccoli Christmas Tree

West Chatham Elementary (GA), Broccoli Christmas Tree

Flat Veggie Trays have been very popular on Pinterest, including the School Meals That Rock Christmas Food Fun board. These two come from districts at opposite ends of the country – Coppell ISD in Texas (L) and South Haven in Michigan (R). Easy to make – and very fun for students!

Texas Broccoli Tree & Michigan Cauliflower Snowman

Texas Broccoli Tree & Michigan Cauliflower Snowman

School lunch can be very festive without being ‘arty’ both this Greek Pizza from Mast Way Elementary Oyster River Child Nutrition, New Hampshire, and the Broccoli Salad from Shaw School, Millbury, Massachusetts, are deliciously colorful examples. Thanks to every school nutrition professional for preparing beautiful, delicious and often fun food for hungry children. Enjoy your winter break – we hope some cooks for you!

Mast Way Greek Pizza, Lee, New Hampshire

Mast Way Greek Pizza, Lee, New Hampshire

Shaw Elementary, Millbury, Massachusetts

Shaw Elementary, Millbury, Massachusetts

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Taste Tests Are Terrific

Two FB photos inspired today’s post – both from districts that I admire. The first is from Lessons from the Lunch Lady, aka Wendy Garman who had the pleasure of meeting at SNAPa meeting last summer. Wendy dedicates her page “to all the little minds I have been blessed to refuel and to all the child nutrition employees who make feeding children a priority” – and often shares the darnedest thins that her small customers say.

Today’s Wendy’s photo showcased a Taste Test of simple roasted kale chips. I was impressed that Wendy was even doing a Taste Test during the holiday rush – and even more impressed with the results she reported: “‘I wish you brought more kale! This stuff is great,’ said a third grader sampling roasted kale chips today. I had very low expectations for this sampling as dark green veggies are not usually listed among kids’ favorites. It was exciting to see how willing everyone was to give it a try and even more amazed to learn that nearly 90 percent of the class enjoyed it.” Plus, the kale was a lovely holiday green!

Roasted Kale Chip Taste Test, Lessons from The Lunch Lady

Roasted Kale Chip Taste Test, Lessons from The Lunch Lady

Lesson learned from this Taste Test (and nearly every other one ever done) – children’s reactions to food are often very different that we expect. In fact, the fewer expectations that the adults have, the more likely children are to experience new foods for themselves. Often their reaction is more positive than we expect.

My second inspiration was a series of photos from EATS (Eat Awesome Things at School) Park City from a Taste Test of butternut squash. I was first impressed by the beautifully appealing display of the samples. There are some benefits of serving samples in a resort town like Park City, Utah – the “roasted Butternut Squash was perfectly cooked by the esteemed The Farm Restaurant at Canyons Resort.”

Butternut Squash Taste Test, EATS Park City, Utah

Butternut Squash Taste Test, EATS Park City, Utah

EATS Park City is doing a really terrific job of engaging community support for #RealSchoolFood. I had the pleasure of meeting with EATS Park City last summer and am impressed with how positively they are working with the school nutrition program and other local businesses. The organically grown squash came from Parker Produce, a 140 year old farm in northern Utah – and the Taste Tests are funded by The Park City Community Foundation and the Park City Sunrise Rotary Club

It is important to remember that while the town has many wealthy visitors a significant number of students have not been exposed to fine dining in local restaurants – or to foods like butternut squash. One elementary school student was concern that the squash contained nuts!

Middle School Students Taste Roasted Butternut Squash

Middle School Students Taste Roasted Butternut Squash

Another lesson learned: Children may perceive new foods in ways that we cannot even imagine, especially if the food item is an everyday food for us. While Taste Tests may seem easy enough – just put out samples and have kids eat them, it can also be helpful to take a more structured approach. Fortunately, there are two great resources – both free for downloading – to help you make the most of tasting #RealSchoolFood:

In both these guides you will find tips and forms to make Taste Tests more fun, more successful and more effective in expanding student food horizons. Here are some examples of the forms from the Vermont FEED Guide.

Sample pages from Vermont Feed's Guide To Taste Testing Local Foods In Schools

Sample pages from Vermont Feed’s Guide To Taste Testing Local Foods In Schools

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: MMMMM-Mushrooms in Schools

If you looked carefully at two of the salad bars in yesterday’s #RealSchoolFood post on Salad Bars Bring on the Produce, you may have noticed that they included fresh mushrooms. In the interest of full disclosure, I am proud to work as a nutrition consultant to the Mushroom Council on school-related issues – and I love to eat mushrooms of all types, raw, cooked and dried.

Although it might not seem immediately obvious, mushroom have a lot to offer to school meals. And, the Mushroom Council has made a real commitment to helping school nutrition programs maximize their use of mushrooms in fun and delicious ways with recipes and success stories on the Mushrooms in Schools website. My favorite photo is these fabulous ‘lunch ladies,’ part of ‘Mushroom Week’ in a New Orleans public school where students got learn about mushrooms in the classroom and eat them in the cafeteria. The student-made aprons are marvelously mushroom-y!

Lusher Elementary Lunch Ladies - ready for 'Mushroom Week' in New Orleans

Lusher Elementary Lunch Ladies – ready for ‘Mushroom Week’ in New Orleans

Chef Robert Rusan, winner of a 2015 School Nutrition Foundation HERO Award may not wear a mushroom covered apron but he certainly knows how to maximize the unique umami potential of mushrooms. Known as the fifth taste, umami – the savory flavor of mushrooms – helps Rusan reduce the sodium in the Maplewood-Richmond Heights meals. Salads, stir-fries, pizza, meatballs and pasta dishes – mushrooms can be added effectively to many of students favorite meals and Rusan’s farm to school delights! Read about Chef Rusan’s Mushroom Success, as well as others, online.

Mushroom Creations from Chef Robert Rusan, Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District, Missouri

Mushroom Creations from Chef Robert Rusan, Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District, Missouri

For school nutrition directors, as well as home cooks, blendability is one of the most exciting features of mushrooms. Finely diced or chopped mushrooms taste, look, act and perform like ground meat. When mixed with ground beef and other meats, the nutritional profile of finely diced mushrooms allows schools to serve students some of the favorite foods, while meeting the new Meal Patterns. In Cincinnati Public Schools, Director Jessica Shelley diverted USDA beef for further processing with USDA Foods IQF Mushrooms to make a burger patty with beef and mushrooms. Lower calories, fat, and sodium allowed for additional menu choices, including a Turkey Bacon Cheeseburger which fits guidelines – and lower costs as well. Read more about this blendability success story online or below.

Mushroom Blendability Success Story from Cincinnati Public Schools

Mushroom Blendability Success Story from Cincinnati Public Schools

For more about the availability of mushroom blended products, check with your meat processor. Several companies have multiple products. For more about creating your own blended items, recipes and news, visit Mushrooms in Schools.

 

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Salad Bars Bring on the Produce

Schools clearly have a role in providing healthy foods to children. Our data suggest that the most vulnerable students are benefitting the most from school food.” A recently published study by Dr. Madeline Dalton, PhDThe Hood Center for Children and Families at Dartmouth College, confirms that school meals are important source of produce for low-income adolescents. According to her co-author Dr. Meghan Longacre, “Innovation in school food offerings for kids has emphasized increased consumption of fruits and vegetables and it’s working for low-income kids, but the evidence shows that a different strategy may be needed to have the same positive effect on high income kids.”

The innovation the authors refer to includes the requirements of the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and changes in Meal Patterns to increase the quantity and variety of produce offerings at school. A quick look at three school salad bars from Southern states – an area not known for its fresh vegetable consumption – confirms that students are enjoying incredible produce options at school.

Lusher High School, New Orleans, Louisiana

Lusher High School, New Orleans, Louisiana

This gorgeous salad bar in a New Orleans Charter School includes everything from common celery to more exotic fresh mushrooms. These teens in this school can clearly enjoy a wide variety of flavors, textures and nutrition along with their lunch entrée. In many schools, teens are to take as many fruits and vegetables as they want. Middle School students in Carrollton, Georgia, can enjoy these colorful choices as part of the district’s Eat Healthy Eat Local Eat at Carrollton City Schools initiative.

Carrollton Middle School Salad Bar, Carrollton City Schools, Georgia

Carrollton Middle School Salad Bar, Carrollton City Schools, Georgia

Up in Harrisonburg, Virginia, the High School Salad Bar is truly impressive. Like her colleague Dr. Linnette Dodson in the Carrollton, Georgia, Harrisonburg’s School Nutrition Director Andrea Early works hard to source as many local items for the produce bar as possible.

Harrisonburg (VA) High School Salad Bar

Harrisonburg (VA) High School Salad Bar

Of course, the most important question is: Do teens really dig into these beautiful displays and increase their intake of fruits and vegetables? The answer, according to a January 2014 Evaluation of the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools Initiative is a resounding success! As reported by the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition (GSCN) the successful outcomes of salad Bar Implementation included:

  • Increased students’ access to fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Most schools reported increased student participation in school lunch (57%)
  • School administrators, teachers, staff, and parents became more supportive of salad bars
  • A majority of schools reported purchasing more fruits and vegetables (78%)
  • Schools used fresh, pre-cut fruits and vegetables for salad bars (81%)

Additional results of the evaluation are outlined in this infographic from the report.

Evaluation of the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools Initiative

Evaluation of the Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools Initiative