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Make Healthy School Meals a Priority

May 12, 2010
Kamyar Enshayan
Des Moines Register
April 8, 2010

A new school menu: Local and nutritious
Kamyar Enshayan

School lunch is not a trivial matter.

Given the sobering data on youth obesity, school lunches are as important as math and science. The Centers for Disease Control reports 18.8 percent of U.S. children ages 6-11 are obese. Other studies show the costs from childhood obesity-associated illnesses in the U.S. have risen from $35 million to $127 million in 10 years.

While underlying causes of childhood obesity are complex, home, community and school food environments have significant influence on children's dietary habits. And across the nation, some of the poorest quality meals are consumed at schools.

A growing movement of health professionals, school officials and local food organizers -- including groups in Iowa -- wish to transform the school food environment and offer fresh, prepared-from-scratch meals, featuring more fruits and vegetables, more fiber and less sugar and fat. This movement also lends to improving community connections when schools serve local produce. We know transforming the school lunchroom is not without challenges. Switching to healthier meals will require changes in the kitchen, connections to local markets and the infrastructure to deliver those products to schools. And cost is always an issue. In the Cedar Valley, Malcolm Price Laboratory School in Cedar Falls, Waterloo Community Schools and Independence Community Schools are working hard to overcome these challenges and show the way for other schools. They have committed to be part of a learning process to offer healthier meals to students, and work with the Northern Iowa Food and Farm Partnership (NIFFP), based at University of Northern Iowa, to connect with local food sources.

The lessons from NIFFP and the three Cedar Valley schools are encouraging:

  • Waterloo Community Schools served 1,200 pounds of grapes, 50 bushels of apples, as well as tomatoes, green peppers and cucumbers from local suppliers. The goal for next year is to feature fresh fruits or vegetables daily, develop kitchen capacity to process local produce, and increase the number of whole grain items on the menu.
  • Independence Schools featured many seasonal and local fruits and vegetables: buffalo hot dogs, broccoli, tomatoes, green and red bell peppers, romaine lettuce, zucchini, yellow squash, apples, green beans, sweet corn, watermelon, baby red potatoes, carrots, spinach, red cabbage, green cabbage, and strawberries. Community volunteers helped process and freeze sweet corn and summer squash, as well as establish a community garden.
  • Price Lab School staff prepared most of its meals from scratch, which means more control over what goes in. Nine local food and farm businesses have supplied fresh, local fruits, vegetables, meats, and dairy products. The number of school lunches served has increased, as have meal variety, selection and satisfaction. Packaging waste has declined, and a compost facility further reduces waste heading into the landfill. Students also are involved with a school garden.
  • NIFFP began reconnecting food buyers to local food sources in 1997. The first year, a Cedar Valley hospital, university and restaurant purchased $110,000 worth of locally grown products. In 2009, $2.5 million of local food was purchased by 28 buyers, including three public school systems.

These successes show healthier meals are possible and practical. And work at the Leopold Center is making it easier for organizations around the state to work with school food service staff, farmers, processors and others and provide healthier meals at schools. On April 15, Iowa school food service staff and other community leaders will meet at Price Lab School for a workshop, “A is for Asparagus: Healthier School Lunches for Iowa.” Attendees will share success stories and learn how school lunch programs can bring more energy to students through nutrition and to the local economy through partnerships with area producers.

If we make changing the food environment in our schools a priority, we will see both our local economy and our children grow stronger and healthier.

Kamyar Enshayan is the director of the University of Northern Iowa Center for Energy and Environmental Education