The frenzy over Jamie Oliver's smackdown with “school lunch ladies” in West Virginia gives us all a chance to talk about the real revolution in school nutrition. In his unreality TV show, Chef Jaime missed an opportunity – to highlight and support thousands of hard working school nutrition heroes around the US who have been making amazing improvements against incredible odds.
And, I do mean AMAZING changes. A great place to start is with the winners in USDA’s HealthierUS School Challenge Awards who have met strict criteria to go for the Gold, Sliver, or Bronze. (A SHOUT OUT to my Montana school nutrition buddies for a total of SEVEN AWARDS!)
Then, there’s the Mississippi partnership of the Office of Healthy Schools and The Bower Foundation. Their Nutrition Integrity Project has replaced deep-fat fryers in 94 schools (and counting!) with oven steamers that prepare Southern favorites with less fat and fewer calories. With 125 (and counting!) Five-Star Food Grants, they have provided equipment and trained “lunch ladies” to serve fruits and vegetables in ways that help children want to dig right in.
Looking for a local food twist? In Vermont’s 3rd annual Junior Chef Competition, teams of middle and high school chefs showed off their skills and proved that school food can be local, delicious, nutritious, and fun!
Want something a little “greener” or successes from your region of the country? Get hooked on Cooks for Kids from the National Food Service Management Institute, a veritable food channel of school nutrition success, where season three all about Cooking Green Across America. My fav: Season 1, Episode 5, showcasing Lakeland (NY) high school's in-house pizza oven, complete with an authentic Italian pizza maker who creates amazingly healthful options using local and commodity foods.
Since I’m running out of room, here’s just one more site highlighting how school districts large and small are supporting local agriculture with Farm-to-School programs worth millions of dollars a year.
And, I did I mention the INCREDIBLE odds that schools face in serving delicious and nutritious meals to students: Low reimbursement rates for free- and reduced meals (only about $1.50 for breakfast and $2.70 for lunch); detailed regulations for calories, fat, and other nutrients; unfunded mandates for wellness policies; fierce competition from fast food giants (and, often, the football coach); and tray loads of criticism in the media.
So, Mr. Oliver, I wish you had done your homework to learn a little more about what is really happening in American school kitchens and cafeterias. Thousands of “lunch ladies and gentlemen” go to work every day to prepare and serve 1.8 billion school breakfasts and 5.1 billion school lunches a year – so that America’s children can be well-nourished and ready to succeed.
To support these school lunch “troops,” I have launched an effort to showcase School Meals That Rock. You can read all about it about my blog Nutrition for the Future. Who knows, I may be able to gather some great stories from British schools too!
Just one more thing, I do have a list of school nutrition directors who would be thrilled to utilize your culinary expertise and TV production dollars to further improve their already awesome school meals. I’m at SchoolMealsThatRock@gmail.com.
Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, is nutrition consultant based in Big Sky country (Billings, Montana) and incoming Chair of the School Nutrition Services Dietetic Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association.