It is very possible to eat healthy as a kid at school, but it isn’t always easy. Here in Madison, the school district is ever attempting to mirror the values of its residents when it comes to healthy eating. The importance of children’s health is very important to this community—we live in a town where you are allowed and encouraged to use your EBT card at the farmers’ market. The process isn’t easy, and the best intentions sometimes come up against financial barriers. The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) has a great ally in REAP (Research, Education, Action and Policy) Food Group, a local nonprofit whose federally funded Farm to School program employs nutrition educators at many of the district’s elementary schools. And, Willy Street Co-op gives parents the option to pack healthy lunches with fresh and organic fruits and vegetables all-year round.
The 2014 documentary Fed Up, argues that “sugary foods—and particularly soda—are the cigarettes of the 21st century”—a comparison that speaks clearly to how damaging and addictive sugar can be to a growing body. For lunch, all Madison elementary students receive a cold pack and a hot pack. A typical hot pack features a Tony’s Galaxy Pizza, for example. (According to the Tony’s website, the pizza has 520 mg of sodium, nine grams of sugar and thirty percent of the recommended daily intake of saturated fats.) The cold pack will include a fruit or vegetable and any toppings or condiments that go with the hot pack. The hot pack is constructed at the MMSD central kitchen and heated up on-site. Older students have more a la carte options, but it is important to note that the average high school lunch in the United States has 100 milligrams more sodium than the acceptable amount a child can healthily ingest in an entire day. The MMSD serves more than 20,000 meals every day during the school year. More than a third of the food and supplies purchased come from companies within a 200-mile radius of Madison. However, the reality of the situation is that big food companies are involved in making the decisions about what your kid eats every day at school.
AJ Hughes, Co-op cashier and MMSD student from kindergarten through high school, rarely packed a lunch. “I remember a lot of subs, chicken sandwiches and burgers. There wasn’t a big selection for just produce. Apple, orange or banana. Nothing else.” Her time at the Co-op and working as a babysitter has shown her that kids can and will eat fresh vegetables, although it wasn’t always the case for her. She also remembers sodas being taken out of her lunchroom at Memorial High School after her freshman year, another sign of how the MMSD continues to make strides toward healthier options. Sam Tai, a Co-op employee and teacher at Sandburg Elementary School for the last three years, is impressed by MMSD’s ability to affirm his students as “young people with tastes and opinions” by giving them more options at lunch. His experience as a teacher showed him that “at notime in the day is the importance of food and nutrition more apparent than the hours around students’ snack and lunch times.”
A meal packed with protein and whole foods will always be better for a student’s capacity to pay attention and learn than a heavy meal of salt and grease. And, obviously, their physical bodies benefit from a healthy meal, too. There are economic and racial factors to obesity, certainly. Healthy food can seem expensive, so it may not even be an option for kids outside of school. Many families have to rely on free and reduced-price lunch. School lunches aren’t the only cause of children being overweight, of course, but it is the meal at the center of their day, and sets an example of what kids should eat when they aren’t at school. Preparing them with the information to make healthy choices in the real world is vital.
REAP’s FARM TO SCHOOL program
While every parent wants the best for their child, it can be difficult to balance that with the actual expense of packing a lunch every day. The school lunch program makes it convenient to send your kid to school with the confidence that he or she will be fed well. Part of what REAP does is work to make those options healthy and more local—they help parents feel better about what their kid is eating during the day. For example, doesn’t the fact that, because of REAP, 17 tons of fresh, local fruits and vegetables were used in the MMSD in 2014, make you smile?
Farm to School lessons help ingrain the importance of local and sustainably grown foods in elementary school students, which in turn makes them healthier and more engaged citizens. The lessons show kids everything from small, hands-on ideas like learning plant parts, to bigger concepts like the journey food takes. Jenna Delesha, one of four nutrition educators paid through the AmeriCorps program, said that her favorite lesson to teach is routes of food. She tries to show them how convoluted the national food system can be: “Our example is how a box of Ritz crackers travels all around the country before getting to your grocery store, versus Potter’s Crackers that are made right here in Madison...with local wheat.” She also taught them about seasonality using strawberries—which aren’t exactly plentiful in Wisconsin in December—but somehow seem to be at the grocery store year round. That led to a discussion about canning and preserving local strawberries, an entirely new process for some students. The kids had to guess what makes a specific hummus dip so red (answer: beets) and Delesha once led a lunchroom in a coordinated snap pea bite, which resulted in a nearly deafening crunch.
The classroom lessons are sometimes paired with a snack. The week the kids learned about thesix parts of a plant, they made tortilla wraps that used one of each: sunflower seeds, tomato (the fruit), broccoli flowers, spinach leaves, kohlrabi (the stem), and carrots or radishes as the root.
REAP does snacks on a bigger scale too, through their Snack Program. Delesha and the other members of the Farm to School team use produce from farms like Snug Haven and Ela Orchards to provide a snack to 13 elementary schools once a week during the school year. Once or twice they did their snack processing at the MMSD central kitchen, where the industrial landscape was a sharp contrast to the REAP workers cutting up carrots by hand or counting local apples, for instance.
The snack program benefits the 13 elementary schools in Madison that have the highest free and reduced-price lunch rate. The USDA helps fund the snack program with the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Grant, which sets restrictions on which elementary schools are eligible. Delesha has noticed a definite divide in the type of students whose grandparents taught them how to cook and the students who have never heard of vegetables like kohlrabi before.
REAP gives them access to these vegetables and more through lunchroom salad bars called Garden Bars. Garden Bars always emphasizes local, in-season vegetables like Co-op favorite Tipi Produce carrots, and replaces the students’ cold packs.
Even though the Garden Bars often have to be funded with the help of an outside donor, the MMSD just witnessed the opening of its 29th Garden Bar in April at Aldo Leopold Elementary School. Leopold, the district’s largest elementary school, is 30 percent African American and 37 percent Hispanic/Latino. Delesha dressed up as a tomato in the Leopold lunchroom to celebrate the occasion—after, of course, giving them lessons on how to use tongs, how to not dip below the sneeze guard, and to only take what they actually plan to eat. It was particularly rewarding when students recognized some of the produce—giant freeze-sweetened spinach that might have once been intimidating—from the lessons she had given them previously. The concept behind Garden Bars is, as Delesha puts it, to “encourage kids to make choices about what they want to eat instead of putting a pack in front of them.” They pick all their own fruits and veggies, and, she continued, “Studies have shown that if kids have a choice of what they want to eat, they’ll eat more healthy things.”
After a year of teaching about nutrition and the food system, Delesha received a package of thank you notes from some of her students. They wrote things like, “I learned that grains and vegetables have seeds in them”; “Thank you for teaching my class and I about seasonality. I learned a lot of stuff that I didn’t know about nature”; “I learned that local foods are better for you”; “I learned that bees are not mean”; and “Thank you for coming in and teaching us about how to be healthy. I learned that there’s a lot of steps to get our food.”
“I hoped while teaching I was getting the messages across,” said Delesha, “then to see the kids draw pictures about the subjects I taught and say thank you and how much fun they had made me feel very proud and accomplished.” Her experience proves that kids can get it—eating healthily is not beyond them, it’s just some trope we’ve come to believe from watching too many Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stuff their faces with the cheesiest pizza on the face of the earth. Learning to like eating healthy at a young age is vital to your health for your entire life—and nothing makes learning more fun than eating while you do it.
MEALS by parents
In my two years working at the Co-op, I’ve seen a lot of beautiful parenting moments—but the best ones, in my opinion, are the real teaching moments. I tried very hard to not look like I was staring at a little girl as she read the sugar content off the back of a cereal box, very slowly, while her mom beamed with pride behind her. I used to collect forgotten grocery lists and the best ones were the ones that had clearly been written by a child, who I’m assuming was also learning what each of the products was and where it was located. These lists also happened to be very cute and contain many priceless misspellings.
I think it would be fun to buy Bunky’s hummus, then go to Bunky’s and eat their hummus there, then make your own hummus at home and compare all three. Then again, I’m also the kind of person who shrieked out loud in a natural foods store in Connecticut when I saw they had RP’s Pasta on sale.
If there is a way to make your kid that excited about local food, it could start with packing them a lunch with which you can both be happy. Take into consideration what the Farm to School program values when you make your kid’s lunch—give them options, make an aspect of it local, and include fruit and vegetables. Seasonality can be a really fun learning experience—seriously: try a local tomato in August and then try a tomato in February, and ask your child to think about why one was better than the other. Wisconsin produce in August is evidencethat seasonality is worth waiting for. Every local item sold at the Co-op has an easily recognizable purple tag. The Co-op believes in three levels of locality (see sidebar). The distinctions have been a real learning experience for me because I always want to recommend a local product to a customer whenever possible.
While I don’t actually have any children of my own, I did talk to some real Co-op parents who all gave me great advice. Ellen Carlson has been a Co-op shopper for about 15 years, and regularly packs lunches for her two children, ages nine and six. Her kids get to choose the days they eat school lunches so they get to eat some of their favorite foods. Otherwise, Carlson packs healthy lunches because she doesn’t always think school lunches “make for good brain and body control fuel,” but also because she wants her kids to “get in the habit of seeing the types of foods we provide for them as healthy and balanced.” She’s aware that school lunches result in a tremendous amount of waste, and because she knows how much her kids can eat, packing a lunch eliminates that waste. It may seem like school lunch is cheaper, but Carlson thinks otherwise. The kids’ lunches stay pretty similar—a sandwich, fruit, vegetable, and a snack like pretzels, nuts, and maybe even chocolate. That consistency—she also shops once a week—and “the thought of [food that’s] processed, packed in syrup….[or] packed in little trays and cellophane”—makes it even easier.
All of the parents I spoke to were dealing with some combination of balancing the expense of packing a lunch and the health content of school lunches. I talked to another mom who recommended making a version of homemade LaraBars—a simple recipe consisting of water and three things the Co-op sells tons of in the bulk aisle: pitted Medjool dates, cashews and peanut butter. The recipe is easily adaptable to your kid’s favorite tastes. Carlson’s youngest son “could eat yogurt all day,” and although it isn’t “the perfect health food,” she likes to freeze a tube of yogurt, and by lunchtime it’s just cold enough.
The Madison Metropolitan School District has a long way to go when it comes to school lunches—but their problems are endemic of our entire country. That doesn’t excuse the issues, but it speaks to how much work there is to do to get truly healthy lunches in every school. Locality and seasonality are a good start, and packing a lunch more often can be a learning experience for you and your kid. The habit of eating healthy goes both ways.