Yes! There Is Hope for a Healthier School Lunch

Reheated frozen chicken nuggets, mushy green beans, and jello have long been staples in many school cafeterias. But the times, they are a-changing. People are coming together across the United States to bring fresh, local foods to kids at school. Today, on Worldview’s monthly EcoMyths segment, Jerome McDonnell and I talked with Liz Soper of Eco-Schools USA to get the fresh facts.

Many factors have come together to create this new trend toward providing fresh foods to schools. According to Liz, these include Michelle Obama’s campaign to get kids moving and eat healthy. In addition, the growing awareness of large food deserts in many urban areas has increased the need for schools to provide the best possible nutrition for children during the school day. In food deserts, their parents may not have access to buy fresh food in their neighborhoods, so school may be where kids get their healthiest meal of the day.

Why School Lunch Is Going Healthy

The case for healthy school lunches is strong:

1.    Local, organic, fresh food is becoming a national priority.

2.    School districts around the country are growing fresh foods to provide to their school cafeterias.

3.    Kids perform better in school when they eat fresh food.

Liz reminded us that local, fresh food is coming to the forefront not just in schools, but in restaurants, communities, and in the culture in general. Community gardens are popping up all over the country. In addition, people are buying memberships in Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), local farms that deliver weekly crates of fresh, locally farmed produce to their members. This is happening due to increased interest in providing healthy foods for our families and ourselves. Plus, people prefer the taste of freshly-picked produce versus that which was picked before it was ripe and shipped across the country.

Kids across the country are learning the joy of gardening, with Eco-Schools support. (Lauren May/Eco-Schools USA)

This exciting development in schools can be seen in many of the largest public school districts across the country. Chicago, Los Angeles, and Denver all have implemented programs in which the school district grows produce and delivers it to its own cafeterias. Some of these school gardens are right on school grounds, so the students have an opportunity to plant, nurture, and harvest produce themselves.  Liz told us that kids are much more likely to eat a fresh cucumber or bean if they have grown it themselves—and they like it! As she says, most kids are used to eating beans out of a can, so there is a transition period as their taste buds move towards preferring fresh and natural.

Eco-Schools USA, Liz explains, works with schools to develop green teams that do a food assessment and create a plan of action they can implement. They encourage schools to take small steps and help gradually kids transform the way they eat. The Eco-Schools programs help the kids make the direct connections between fresh foods and their communities.

Liz also suggests that school performance is enhanced when kids eat healthy. Studies show children have more energy and are more alert when they eat fresh, whole foods rather than sugary or processed foods. Not only does eating fresh foods help fight obesity, but studies show that a healthy diet may improve students’ math scores.

Overall, it seems movement towards healthy food in schools is good for communities, great for kids’ health and energy levels, and beneficial for school performance. That seems like a recipe worth following!

To learn more about this topic, listen to the podcast of today’s show above and read the myth.

—As part of our partnership with Worldview, this content may also appear on Chicago Public Media.