Hail to the trailblazers!
No one would argue the importance of nutrition, especially for children. As their bodies develop, they need healthy foods to support all the changes they so quickly experience. There is no one meal more important than the other—they are all equally critical.
For many school-aged children, most of their meals are provided by their schools and parents trust that those institutions are careful about their children’s diets.
Enter Sausalito Marin City School District in California. In 2013, the environmental education non-profit organization Turning Green launched a pilot project called The Conscious Kitchen. Its guiding terms:
“Fresh. Local. Organic. Seasonal. Non-GMO [genetically-modified organism]. [FLOSN] These terms guide this groundbreaking program and define an unwavering commitment to the long term health and life outcomes of our children, prioritizing ethically sourced and organically grown food.” (1)
In 2015, The Conscious Kitchen (TCK) expanded to reach almost 500 students in 2 schools in the Sausalito Marin City school district, the first school district in the United States to embark on this type of program.
In partnership with the Good Earth Natural Foods School Lunch Program, TCK now serves 16 schools in the county. In addition, the West Contra Costa Unified School District recently agreed to a year-long pilot program in 2 of its schools for the 2017/18 school year. (2)
What TCK offers for school lunch programs:
- Serve fresh, local, organic, seasonal, non-GMO food
- Purchase within USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture) budget and exceed nutritional guidelines
- Daily scratch-cooked meals from an on-site kitchen
- Dedicated head chef and staff
- Kitchens partner with local community chef
- Partnerships with organic farmers and purveyors
- Strong commitment to, and education around, zero waste
- Broad-based community involvement
- Leadership development through TCK Ambassadors Program
- Food literacy through Garden and Nutrition Curriculum
So the TCK provides genuinely nutritious meals, cooked fresh on-site for the same cost as the frozen, processed, mass-produced institutional food served in other public schools. From Executive Chef Justin Everett:
“Most people don’t realize that GMOs are everywhere, especially in processed foods. By embracing fresh, local, organic, non-GMO food, this program successfully disrupts the cycle of unhealthy, pre-packaged, heat and serve meals that dominate school kitchens.” (3)
The short-term health effects of GMO are known. A whole body of research has found GMO implicated in a host of chronic and even life-threatening diseases. Long-term impacts have yet to be seen.
In the 2 years of the pilot program from 2013-15, the schools involved saw “a steep decrease in disciplinary cases, increased attendance and a greater sense of community”.
In 2012, the USDA revised its nutrition standards for schools to cut sodium, use grains that are at least 51% whole grains, and add more fruits and vegetables to both breakfasts and lunches.
Earlier this year, the sodium and whole grain requirements were reversed to 2010 standards. (4)
Waivers for certain nutritional requirements are available if schools find that students aren’t eating what’s offered.
An insight into federal standards:
- Lunch meals must have less than 1230mg of sodium (that’s an awful lot of salt)
- Breakfast and lunch must include at least ½ cup of fresh fruit or vegetables
- No trans fats allowed
- No more than 10% of calories from saturated fat
- Flavored milk must be fat free (what about the sugar?!) (5)
Similar guidelines are applied to what’s sold in vending machines; of note is the sugar requirement of 35% or less by weight per item (that’s a lot of sugar!). High schools can also offer caffeinated and soft drinks. (6)
The USDA’s nutritional guidelines were developed in part by research into expected outcomes of food choices in schools, both meals served in cafeterias and snack foods otherwise available.
It’s openly recognized that children’s health is at stake, with rates of childhood obesity, diabetes, and other serious illness on the rise due to what they’re eating.
Since some students eat more than half of their daily intake at school, making sure that school food is nutritious is critical. The 2010 Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed with that goal. (7)
Based on the above, the nutrition bar was set low. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.
Parents wanting to avoid having their children eat institutional school lunches by sending a homemade lunch have met with resistance in some jurisdictions. TCK is therefore a huge win for American children.
What Kids Eat
Taste in food is learned at home. Kids eat what they like. Changing food offerings at school is only one part of the issue because you can’t make them eat stuff they’re not used to.
The Edible Schoolyard Project was founded in Berkeley, California at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in 1998. Its mission:
“…to build and share a national edible education curriculum for pre-kindergarten through high school. We envision gardens and kitchens as interactive classrooms for all academic subjects, and a sustainable, delicious, and free lunch for every student. Integrating this curriculum into schools can transform the health and values of every child in America.” (8)
The theory to getting kids to eat what’s good for them is concisely put by Liza Siegler, its Director of Partnerships and Engagement:
“Schools that incorporate an integrated approach to edible education—combining local, seasonal food procurement strategies with hands-on lessons taught in the classroom, kitchen, and garden—are far more likely to sustain healthy school meal initiatives.” (9)
This was the inspiration behind TCK. Apparently this approach has been proven to work; a similar program has been wildly successful in Japan.
Judi Shils, Executive Director of Turning Green, explains:
“Students everywhere are vulnerable to pesticide residues and unsafe environmental toxins. Not only does this program far exceed USDA nutritional standards but it ties the health of our children to the health of our planet. It’s the first program to say that, fundamentally, you cannot have one without the other.”
Indeed, a holistic approach that includes food education will help children to understand what they’re eating and why it’s important. One can expect they’ll feel the difference after making better food choices. Innovators like TCK are making a difference in the well-being of our children and hopefully creating a lifelong interest in healthy eating.