The Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project: A Gillings Innovative Laboratory

School Lunch – It’s time for a change!
July 22, 2009, 6:23 pm
Filed under: Education, Food, Health, Politics | Tags: , , , ,


I spend part of my time working with children in a beautiful garden at a local elementary school in the Triangle area. We try to involve the kids as much as we can in planting, weeding, and harvesting the food they grow. With all the hard work that goes into the garden, you’d think that eating the fruits of their labor would be the easiest part.

Not so.

One of our biggest challenges is using all the food we grow in the garden. Because of state regulations, we are unable to give any of our garden harvest to the school cafeteria to use to prepare meals. And even if we were allowed, many school cafeterias do not contain a kitchen equipped to cook fresh produce. Some of you may be scratching your heads at this point. School cafeterias without a kitchen? Can this be true? When I first learned of this I found it hard to believe, but apparently, many schools just warm up the food they receive from large food distribution systems before serving it to the children. I was very curious to learn more. If this was all the prep that was required, then just what were cafeterias serving?

After my recent trip to Wayne County (as part of the Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project) to survey students at the CASTLES school garden program (the school that I wrote about last week), I was inspired to take an in depth look at the lunch menu at the school where I volunteer.  I examined the menu options for a single week in June to find the following foods listed: nachos with chili and cheese, beef-a-roni, pizza, country style steak with gravy, and corn-dog nuggets. Each of these is considered the main dish for the lunchtime meal. Children are then able to choose two of the following sides, which vary depending on the day: yogurt, corn nibblets, breadsticks, sherbet cup, pinto beans and winter mixed vegetables. (These winter vegetables were available in June no less!) As the school lunch program was explained to me, it seemed that kids would potentially be able to select a lunch without including any fruits or vegetables. I was also curious to find out where all of this food was coming from, much of it out of season and highly processed. Was this food being imported from long distances, did it have preservatives added to it, and were there hormones or antibiotics in any of the meat products?

Thinking of the long rows of lettuce we had going to seed in my school garden, it occurred to me that there is a strong disconnect between food grown in school gardens and the highly processed and out of season foods served in cafeterias. This is most likely confusing to children on a number of levels. They work very hard to grow fresh fruit and vegetables in their garden, but when it comes down to it, this food does not seem at all similar to the food they eat everyday in school.

The current Child Nutrition Act expires September 30, 2009, meaning it’s up for re-authorization. Many people around the country are rallying to get the food that our youngest citizens eat in schools changed. While this may or may not include making use of school gardens, it could include serving food that is similar to food grown in them. School food could include seasonal produce, so when the children begin harvesting the sweet potatoes in the garden they are eating sweet potatoes at lunchtime. Food could be sourced from local producers, farmers that grow produce and raise animals within a reasonable distance from the school. Kids could have access to meat that is free from hormones and chemical preservatives and is raised in a humane manner. What’s exciting is that a revised Child Nutrition Act could include changing some of the loopholes that allow children to eat junk food instead of real food. If truly revolutionary, the Act could include provisions for giving kids food that would allow them to see that healthy can be synonymous with delicious. This would allow programs such as CASTLES to start making connections between the food they are growing and the food that shows up in their cafeteria. This would establish school garden programs as a fully integrated part of school curriculum.

Relevant research projects, such as the Gillings Sustainable Agriculture Project in partnership with CASTLES, and grass-roots organizations like Slow Food USA’s “Time for Lunch” campaign, are spurring on debate and forcing people to recognize that change is needed for school lunch programs.

At the school garden I work with, we figured that time in the garden was going to have to include time spent eating since we couldn’t give food to the cafeteria to use. This past spring, we invited local chefs to come visit and cook with the kids using the garden ingredients as well as other yummy local goods. We made lettuce wraps with local ground pork, strawberries with homemade whip cream, caprese salad and a chilled squash soup all in the garden with very, and I mean very, limited cooking supplies. Sure some kids didn’t like it, but they all tried it, and most kids enjoyed it, many asking for second servings of their favorites. At the very least, they were all in agreement that the food was unlike anything they had eaten in school before.  Watching a girl dangle a dripping tomato with mozzarella above her mouth before she ate it in enjoyment, I realized that we need to have more faith in children’s tastes. We don’t need to fill it with preservatives and sugar for them to eat it. If given the choice, kids will eat real and healthy food. Now we need a more progressive Child Nutrition Act that will make school cafeterias into working kitchens with access to delicious local foods, ultimately leading to future generations making healthier choices lifelong.


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