Better School Food One Bite at a Time
By Cyndie Sirekis
America’s fruit growers would likely understand if young school-age kids have not tried fresh star fruit, pomegranate, mango…even kiwi. But surely most pint-size diners have eaten a peach, a summer staple for fresh fruit lovers beloved nationwide?
Sadly, for many kids the answer is no. Part of the reason is that all too often, the culinary landscape at schools, where children typically consume between 30 percent and 50 percent of their daily calories according to experts in the field, is bleak and has been for years. High-fat, packaged meals heated in the microwave are the norm. Fresh fruits and veggies rarely show up on cafeteria trays and “from scratch” meals have gone by the wayside.
But the dismal state of in-school dining is on the cusp of change, thanks to a new initiative that aims to connect chefs with schools in their communities. “Chefs Move to Schools” is part of the administration’s broader “Let’s Move!” program, which has a goal of vanquishing America’s childhood obesity problem in one generation.
A whopping 31 million kids eat lunch at school daily and 11 million also eat breakfast at school. That’s a lot of tummies to fill.
Helping school staffers learn how to prepare nutritious food that also tastes good is the focus of many Chefs Move to School efforts as the program gets under way. Chefs appear eager to share their expertise with local schools—more than 1,600 in 24 states across the country signed up in just the first few months of the program. The Agriculture Department pairs chefs with local school representatives that have expressed interest in the program.
How to best meet the schools’ dietary guidelines, while teaching young people about nutrition and making balanced, healthy meal choices is determined by chefs and school officials in each community.
Scratch cooking basics, knife techniques, making food more visually appealing and safety tips are among the subjects taught by volunteer chefs to school food service workers. Chefs may also help schools in other ways such as connecting food service staff with local growers or hosting community dinners.
Despite the early enthusiastic response to the program, instituting a nationwide school meal makeover could be akin to what seasoned farmers might describe as “picking a tough row to hoe.”
The time crunch faced by school food service workers is a significant challenge. Just 20 minutes to prep and serve several hundred hungry diners is common. Another high hurdle is the lack of basic kitchen including ovens, produce sinks and cold storage in schools.
Despite these obstacles, “Chefs Move to Schools” appears to be moving forward at full speed. School nutritionists at large school systems in locales as diverse as Denver, Baltimore and Miami-Dade Public Schools in Florida have embraced the initiative with high hopes of teaching young people about nutrition and how to make balanced, healthy meal choices.
With some schools already in session as summer winds down, fresh peaches may yet be the stars of the cafeteria show—eaten right off the tree, on top of ice cream or blended in ice-cold slushies. August is National Peach Month, after all. Learn more about Chefs Move to Schools at letsmove.gov/chefs.php.