Fresh ideas for school lunches


(Illustrations by Rosie Scott for The Washington Post)
November 16, 2013

In the adult world, there’s a saying that goes like this: A big ship is hard to turn. It means that once people and organizations get used to doing something one way, it’s hard to get them to do it a different way. Today, that big ship is the food being served in school cafeterias, where hamburgers, pizza and macaroni and cheese are still typical dishes. More and more, however, people are trying to get fruits and vegetables that are fresh and grown nearby into your school and into your belly.

Passion for pumpkins

“We’re most passionate about getting the organic produce on our farm in the cafeteria,” said Chris Guerre, a farmer in Great Falls who visits at least two schools in Arlington every month to tell kids what he’s growing and to offer samples. (Organic food is food that is grown with no or very few man-made chemicals.) “What is most important is actually getting better food in the cafeteria and helping kids eat it and enjoy it and hopefully change their attitudes about food,” said Guerre, who has been selling his fruits and vegetables to schools for five years.

Recently, Guerre stopped by Jamestown Elementary School to talk to the kids at lunchtime and pass out samples of pumpkin seeds and pumpkin soup.

“It’s super good,” said second-grader Hannah Marrone, 7. “I eat fruits and vegetables every day, because they’re healthy for you.” Her favorite fruit is mango, and her favorite vegetable is corn. “I’m getting more!” she said, and she went for seconds.

Her friend Ingrid Soracco, 7, agreed, even though she had never had pumpkin soup before. “It’s awesome!” she said.

“We’re trying to encourage and excite the kids,” Guerre said. “We want it to be cool and fun to eat fruits and vegetables.”

Food and obesity

About one out of three kids is overweight or obese, according to the American Heart Association. That rate is about three times what it was 50 years ago. That’s why paying attention to healthful eating is more important than ever.

“Healthy food makes a huge difference in terms of the health of the child and their academic performance,” said JoAnne Hammermaster, who started Real Food for Kids, a group that is trying to get more healthful foods in Fairfax County school cafeterias. “They have to start at a young age . . . and appreciate where the food comes from. They need to learn this at an early age to get good habits.”

In 2007, Virginia established a program to encourage schools to buy local produce. Two years later, Virginia started an annual farm-to-school week, which includes such events as sampling local produce and dress-like-a-farmer day.

“Eighty percent of schools have participated in one way or another,” said Leanne DuBois, who runs Virginia’s program. “Kids are interested in where their food comes from. . . . It’s very much a grass-roots program. That means the ideas are coming from small groups and individual schools.

Maryland established its farm-to-school program in 2008. All the public schools in Maryland participate, even if only by getting local apples in the fall. Marla Caplon, who has worked in the Montgomery County school system’s Food and Nutrition Services Division for 25 years, said people today are much more aware about healthful eating habits.

“There’s been a trend over the last 15 years where there’s been a consciousness and a connection to healthy eating in children,” she said.

Some people think that offering fresh meals is hard when a large number of kids have to be served. Tell that to D.C. Central Kitchen, which serves 4,800 meals a day in nine D.C. schools. The food is made from scratch using local produce. The menus feature healthful things that kids like, such as pizza made with whole-wheat pita bread and low-fat cheese.

Before, “we had to order more of the larger sizes [of uniforms] than we do now,” said Brian Becker, the assistant headmaster at Washington Jesuit Academy, one of D.C. Central Kitchen’s schools. The school in Northeast Washington serves three meals a day to its 95 fifth- through eighth-grade boys. They go through 300 to 500 pounds of fresh produce each week.

“In a school this small, there could be a million factors why,” he said of the smaller uniforms, “but we’re just a healthier place than we used to be.”

Lunch laws

In 2010, the D.C. Council passed the Healthy Schools Act, which says that schools must offer a fruit and a vegetable to students every day and that meals must not contain a large amount of fat. The law also encourages schools to provide local produce whenever possible.

Beatriz Zuluaga, food and nutrition director at CentroNia Charter School, said the District uses a lot of new ideas in its food policy.

The 650 kids at CentroNia’s five D.C. campuses are offered fruits and vegetables five times a day. (That includes snack times.) At least once a week, they get a delivery of local produce.

“To educate children, you have to feed them well,” Zuluaga said. “It’s true that children will learn better if they have better food. If they have nutritious food, they are more active mentally.”

Kids like it

“I like grapes. I like lettuce. Tomatoes are okay. I like celery, carrots, and then there are apples,” said Abby Freund, 8, a third-grader at Jamestown. “Broccoli is great. Asparagus is good, surprisingly, and green beans . . . .

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, someone Abby’s age should be eating 11 / 2 cups of fruit and 11 / 2 cups of vegetables a day.

That’s not hard to do, even in colder months.

“People don’t realize that you can grow and harvest food in the winter outside,” said Guerre, who sells locally grown apples, potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, winter squashes, mushrooms, a wide variety of leafy greens, turnips, radishes, carrots, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and parsnips in the wintertime.

“I just like eating healthy because it makes me feel good,” said Rosie Purcell, 8, a Jamestown third-grader who liked Guerre’s soup. “It was sweet, and it was tasty. I would eat it again.”

“We’re in an age of wellness,” said Guerre, who also has a grocery store in Vienna called Maple Avenue Market. “All of this is headed in the right direction. People are talking about healthy eating and what they’re putting in their bodies. . . . I’m going to grow as much as I can and get it in our schools. . . . These kids deserve the best food.”

Moira E. McLaughlin

To make Chris and Sara Guerre’s Easy Pumpkin Soup, click here: projects.washingtonpost.com/recipes/2013/11/17/easy-pumpkin-soup/

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