So Long, Sloppy Joe: What's Cooking At School

How schools are meeting new federal nutrition standards.

Schoolboy holding plate of lunch in school cafeteria smiling at camera
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In Cincinnati, public schools aim to serve "nutritious, low-cost, delicious meals, so that students don't feel they have to eat school lunch, but that they want to eat school lunch," says Jessica Shelly, food services director for Cincinnati Public Schools, which adopted the new guidelines last year, but switched to serving fresh produce, skim milk, and whole grains five years ago. "For many years now, you would not find any fryers, trans fat, and high-fructose corn syrup in our lunchrooms—instead you would find salad bars, fresh fruit options, and vegetarian alternative entrées. We may still have pizza on our menu, but it has a whole-grain crust, low-fat cheese, and reduced-sodium sauce," she says. More participation in the school lunch program has meant financial savings for the school district. More importantly, evidence suggests student health is improving. Cincinnati Children's Hospital tracked students from kindergarten to third grade between 2007 and 2011 and found that more than half of the children who were obese or overweight in kindergarten had achieved a normal weight by third grade.

Putting salad bars in every school, working with resources provided by the USDA and the School Nutrition Association, and educating students and parents about the nutritional upgrades helped to encourage the adoption of new foods, Shelly says. She also attributes success to making gradual changes, like offering kids blends of white and brown rice before moving entirely to whole grains. Older students also appreciated their providing plenty of healthy meal choices in various locations, like reimbursable vending machines stationed outside the cafeteria, she says. "Children want to and will eat the healthier options when offered. I'm in the business of feeding kids, not garbage cans, so I was initially concerned about food waste from the additional offerings of fruit and vegetables each day. What I have found instead are kids who are excited to take the kiwi-orange cup and try the cherry tomatoes from the salad bar … what I'm not finding is extra food dumped into the garbage can."

The new nutrition guidelines, announced by the First Lady and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack earlier this year, were based on recommendations by the Institute of Medicine, a nonpartisan advisory group, and established by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. That bill, for which Michelle Obama campaigned, updated current child nutrition programs—reimbursing schools for meeting the new standards, aiding in the creation of school gardens, and boosting access to local produce and drinking water in schools, for example.

The new dietary standards "will bring more fruits and vegetables and whole grains to the cafeterias, but perhaps as importantly, they will provide an opportunity for school nutrition directors to look at their menus overall and really take a step back and think about how they can make improvements," says Ginny Ehrlich, CEO of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which works to curb childhood obesity. Ehrlich predicts the new standards will spark the kind of thinking that took place several years ago, when Congress ruled that school districts must enact local school wellness policies by 2006. "That meant that almost every school district across the country in 2005 to 2006 was having a conversation about wellness," she says.

Ehrlich's group, which is based in Portland, Ore., works with more than 14,000 U.S. schools, focusing its free training and support on poverty-stricken areas, where kids are most prone to obesity due to lack of access to nutritious foods. Current school trends, she says, include "speed-scratch cooking," mixing prepared food with homemade goods (think Sandra Lee's "Semi-Homemade Cooking" on the Food Network). Taste-testing, too, has proven popular as a kind of insurance policy for expanding variety in schools. "If you haven't seen something before, and you're 8, you're probably not going to eat a whole plate of it," Ehrlich says. Sampling prospective menu items "increases their palette, which increases what food service directors can serve, because kids will eat it."