I had an illuminating chat recently with four ladies in our central administration office who have the responsibility – along with the cafeteria staff in each school – for feeding the over 8200 students in the Chatham County, North Carolina school district.
Breakfast and lunch for this hungry horde is orchestrated by just three full-time employees and one contract dietician who were kind enough to sit down with me in the midst of their busy summer planning sessions.
We talked kids, parents, teachers, school food rules, fresh vs. processed, cafeteria staff, procuring local, and more. My main takeaway was this: we are lucky to have this crew running the show in Chatham County. They’re smart, they know what they’re doing, and they really care.
I’ve made a career out of advocating for access to healthy food and physical activity opportunities, most of all for kids. There is no bigger issue in this space than that of school food. No issue that inspires greater ire among parents, frustration among advocates, and misunderstandings among just about everyone.
First of all, the regulations are bewildering. I’ve spent hours trying to decipher the complicated and ever-changing interplay of nutrition standards and reimbursement rules from the USDA National School Lunch program, North Carolina Board of Ed nutrition programs and rules, and local policies. It pretty much makes my head want to explode, and I’ve been trained as a policy analyst. Momsrising.org has a great resource about school lunches that explains the new nutrition guidelines and more. Find it here.
Rules and regulations aside, what I heard is that the nutrition staff in Chatham County, NC would like nothing else than to serve food that is entirely fresh and unprocessed, locally sourced, and totally healthy. Here are just a few of the bigger challenges to that goal:
- School nutrition programs have to be self-supporting. Meaning, if the kids don’t buy the food, they have to cut costs. More kids who buy school lunch = better food.
- They are limited in the amount of fresh, whole foods they can incorporate into menus by the amount of cafeteria staff they have to prepare it. See barrier #1.
- There is currently no farm in Chatham County that has the capacity to provide food to the school system: this farm would have to be large enough to provide the quantities the school needs, able to deliver to every school, and GAP-certified (an expensive, complicated USDA process of ensuring food safety practices are met.
Then there’s the question of kids tastes. As a mom who is frustrated every day by trying to feed my kids, I am aware of what they’re up against: namely, kids palates that have been trained to embrace sweet, salty processed foods. Can kids learn to embrace fresh and healthy? Yes. Is it challenging? Yes. And the ladies made an interesting point here about our county: because it is somewhat culturally and geographically diverse, a menu item that is embraced in one part of the county is often rejected in another.
Now let’s talk marketing. We’ve already established that the lunch program has to pay for itself. To do that, they’ve somehow got to convince parents that the meals are healthy and nutritious and kids that the meals are….not. All with close to zero resources for marketing.
Parents, the bottom line is this: advocating for healthy school food is really important, if this is an issue that you care about. One way to do that is to support your school nutrition program. Have your kids buy food at school, if you can. New nutrition standards are now dictating that school lunches include at least half a cup of fruit and vegetables, include whole grains, and are low in sodium. In fact, the new regulations are so much healthier that school lunch programs are having trouble getting the kids to buy the lunches.
Revenues have dropped in Chatham County by the hundreds of thousands since the new, healthier school meal standards have been implemented. Despite this, the nutrition staff supports them wholeheartedly. They’re working hard to develop healthy menus that the kids will like, and to procure the best possible foods on extremely limited budgets. Approximately 30% of the produce the kids eat in Chatham County schools comes from North Carolina farms, via a USDA program that helps schools procure more local foods.
Could the food be even fresher, healthier, and more delicious? Sure. Should we try to help make that happen? Yes! Start by spending $2.65 a day on lunch at your school’s cafeteria. You will be supporting a local business that touches the lives of virtually every kid in the county.