Big city public school cafeterias get healthy food makeovers

Perhaps since the late 19th century when school lunch programs began in cities like Boston and Philly, public school students have complained about school lunches.

Mystery meat and prison food were among two of the nicknames students and parents had for the American Public School lunch menu.

But when childhood obesity became epidemic, parents, educators and culinary professionals got active in the quest to reinvent that school lunch program established back in 1946 before their were microwaves and before America became a fast food nation. Their goal wasn't awesome, difficult or costworthy. They simply wanted to implement healthy, fresh, and in some cases, home-cooked meals in public schools.

Today, public school students in LA, Dallas, Miami-Dade, Orange County and New York City ate broccoli, fresh fruit, milk Roasted chicken, brown rice, seasoned black or red beans, steamed broccoli, fresh, in-season fruit and milk at lunch. It's the first time students across state lines shared identical menus while participating under the umbrella of a larger organization, the Urban School Food Alliance.

Last year the Urban School Food Alliance hooked up with six of the nation's largest school districts and from there, those six districts started working together to get healthy food to students. Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Miami-Dade and Orange County,and the New York City Department of Education launched the start of their program by serving identical menus across state lines to their students today.

"This show of solidarity is unprecedented," said Los Angeles Unified School District Food Services Director David Binkle. "It demonstrates that all the school districts in the alliance can work together to implement the same programs while serving nutritious meals to our students."

More than 2.6 millions students in today have been served the USFA's first unified menu.

"We created this menu based on the most popular items we commonly serve in each of our Districts," said Leslie Fowler, Director of Nutrition Support Services at Chicago Public Schools. "Our goal moving forward is to identify these commonalities and work with our vendors to capitalize on our purchasing power so that we're providing the best and freshest foods possible to our students at the lowest costs possible."

In 2011, Cook for America made headlines with its program that trains food service workers in public school to prepare fresh meals. In 2011, some schools in Colorado had already adopted the program which meant students in those districts were subject to far fewer processed and packaged foods. Colorado, incidentally, consistently ranks among the top healhiest states in the U.S. New York, however, suffers from one of the largest childhood obesity rates in the nation.

The Urban School Food Alliance first met in Denver in 2012 and has since kept in communication regularly via telephone. The food services directors from each of the school districts share and review menu items to ensure that they provide access to meals that meet the USDA's nutrient recommendations including whole grain products, low fat dairy, fresh produce and lean protein that when prepared are calorie conscious and low in fat, sugar and sodium. In addition to creating a purchasing powerhouse, the coalition is working to be more ecologically friendly in their respective districts. As a whole, the alliance procures more than $530 million in food and food supplies annually.

Approximately one million students in the U.S. public school system were homeless this year. The number is the highest ever in the country. Free and reduced lunch and breakfast is a crucial government subsidized program that benefits both stduents and educators who struggle with attention and behavioral issues, both of which are reduced with healthy diets and fresh foods, both of are not always available at home to a growing number of U.S. public school students.
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