A nibble here, and a nibble there

Seems like everyone - from politicians to TV chefs - wants to make over school food programs. But even advocates concede that major changes can't happen overnight.

By Jane Dornbusch
Globe Correspondent / September 1, 2010

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Pity poor school lunch, the butt of countless jokes, the bane of reform-minded nutritionists. It’s been blamed for everything from childhood obesity to the academic achievement gap. With its mystery meat, its french fries masquerading as vegetables, and its fast-food aspirations, could any program be more in need of an image makeover?

A makeover is precisely what school lunch has received in the past few years. The much-maligned commodity food program, from which many cafeterias get their staples, is now called “USDA Foods: Healthy Choices, American Grown.’’ The organization formerly known as the School Food Service Association — the trade group for lunch ladies — has become the School Nutrition Association. And while you’re at it, don’t call them lunch ladies. Today, they are cooks, nutrition educators, and salespeople. School lunch has even starred in one Emmy-winning reality TV series (“Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,’’ which ran in the spring, wherein the British chef attempted to improve one school district’s food), and appeared on an episode of another (“Top Chef,’’ with the competitors challenged to create a school meal on a food-service budget).

Governor Deval Patrick recently signed the state’s school nutrition law, almost a decade in the making, which bans school sales of salty and sugary snacks, sodas, and fried foods. The bill also makes it easier for districts to purchase food from farmers. Michelle Obama’s efforts to address childhood obesity help the ongoing conversation about school lunch.

All these interested parties working on the problem add up to substantive change. But as anyone will tell you, there’s still a long way to go. When it comes to what’s going on in the school cafeteria, industry experts agree that turning this battleship will require commitment, money, and, perhaps more than anything, the will to make it happen.

“It’s a huge systemic problem that can’t be attacked from just one angle,’’ says Amy Cotler, a chef and farm-to-table advocate who has served as a consultant to school food-service departments. “There’s policy, there’s nutrition, there’s education.’’ Realistically, she says, change comes slowly, and food-service directors who are in the trenches say that’s probably for the best; a wholesale, overnight change introducing unfamiliar foods and removing beloved junk-food favorites might result, at least temporarily, in fewer children buying lunch. And participation, as it’s called in the system — the number of children buying breakfast and lunch at school — is the metric by which school food-service programs live or die.

In virtually every public school, the food service has to make enough money to pay for itself. The federal government provides reimbursement for school meals, but the maximum is about $2.77 per meal, and in many cases it’s much lower. That’s not a lot, but it can work if enough children are buying (or getting free and reduced-price meals, which earn the school the highest reimbursement rate). Food-service directors are understandably hesitant to do anything that might decrease participation and/or increase costs. Subbing whole-wheat pasta for white, or fresh fruit for canned, might do both.

But many recognize that while participation might dip temporarily, improving food quality can ultimately increase participation, which in turn can offset increased costs. Says Anne Marie Stronach, director of nutrition services for Lawrence Public Schools, “When we eliminated sugary cereals [from school breakfast], we did see a dip in participation, but it bounced back.’’ And Donna Lombardi, nutrition director for Worcester Public Schools, reports a 15 percent increase in participation since the system began offering more whole grains and fresh produce, baking its own muffins, serving baked or rotisserie chicken in lieu of nuggets and patties, and taking other steps toward better nutrition.

Both these school systems, and many others around the state, participate in the Massachusetts Farm to School Program, which connects area farmers and school districts so food services get deliveries directly from growers. Kelly Erwin, managing consultant for the project, says that there are now 192 districts in the Commonwealth that source produce locally. Overcoming logistical obstacles to getting this produce into schools has not been easy, but Erwin calls it a “win-win-win’’ that benefits farmers, schools, and children. She notes that adding locally raised produce to the menu generally does not raise food costs; in many cases, by eliminating the middleman, both farmer and school benefit. “We found that when farmers sell direct to schools, the farmers were happy to get a price that the schools were happy to pay.’’

But is it food children are happy to eat? Apparently so — as long as it’s introduced properly. In Boston, says Kim Szeto, the district’s Farm-to-School coordinator (Boston tried out the program in 10 schools last year and will add two more schools this year), “We did tastings in the cafeteria. One day we made sweet potato fries, a sweet version and a spicy version, and the kids voted on their favorite.’’ Lest sweet potato fries sound like junk, rest assured that these potato strips are actually oven baked. When Stronach began to make changes to Lawrence school lunches, she started with a “black and white sandwich,’’ using one slice of white bread and one whole wheat. The following year, both slices were whole wheat.

How to introduce good nutrition to children who are used to fries and pizza is a key to turning around the program. Catherine Donovan, a food-service director whose district, Hamilton-Wenham Regional, was recently recognized by the School Nutrition Association for its nutrition and nutrition-education efforts, attributes much of her success to what’s taught in the classroom. “They’ve included me in that, so we can incorporate in the cafeteria what they’ve learned in the classroom, and they don’t get mixed messages,’’ says Donovan.

Cash-strapped food-service directors are often forced to cobble together plans — some grant funding here, a pilot program there — until the money add up. In Boston, the Chefs in School Initiative, supported by Project Bread, has sent trained chefs into a handful of schools. Students in a Lawrence high school tend a garden in conjunction with a local farm. The veggies they grow will be part of their lunches. Stronach has also collaborated with UMass Extension to bring its educators into the classroom. And Lombardi’s efforts in Worcester recently helped earn that city the “Healthiest School System in Massachusetts’’ award from the Massachusetts Health Council. Ann Cooper, the so-called “renegade lunch lady’’ who famously turned around school food service in Berkeley, Calif., and Boulder, Colo. (see related story, Page 21), has created a website ( designed to be an online toolkit to help others make healthy changes.

It’s not quite a complete makeover. For now, advocates and practitioners recommend taking the long view. Cotler, who wrote a farm-to-school cookbook that was distributed to every school in Massachusetts, is hopeful but pragmatic.

“One of the things I’ve learned, after 30 years in farm-to-table advocacy,’’ says Cotler, “is that first you wish for change within a year, and then within a decade, and then, hopefully, before you die.’’

Jane Dornbusch can be reached at