Building a conversation around school food

April 25, 2013 | |

*This article originally appeared in the April 20, 2013, edition of the Traverse City Record-Eagle

A recent overhaul of the federal nutrition rules for schools is meant to provide healthier options for children. But the new requirements—including larger servings of fruits and vegetables that local farmers could grow, less sodium and fat, and more whole grains—have sparked a heated debate nationally and right here in Traverse City. A significant number of older students are unhappy with some of the changes to their lunch menus.

Several weeks ago, UpNorth TV’s CrossTalk North program featured a debate between a high school student and a school’s athletic director on the impact and merits of the changes. As a FoodCorps Service Member working through the nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute, I took a real interest in this public conversation because I straddle both the world of food service professionals and students. I teach elementary school students where food comes from through hands-on cooking and gardening activities.

I know that kids can love healthy foods, especially when it’s flavorful and fresh from the garden or local farms. When students have the opportunity to grow and harvest spinach for the salad bar or make farm-fresh salsa, they are excited to eat it. When I coordinate lunchroom taste tests of local vegetables, I ask students to vote whether they “tried it,” “liked it” or “loved it.” Because kids want to cast a vote, they are more likely to try the new food—and more often than not surprised by how much they like it. These strategies work because kids feel invested and connected to their school food.

I facilitated a discussion at the recent Farm Routes to Prosperity Summit, held by the Northwest Michigan Food & Farming Network, around the question: “How can we make schools a place where students enjoy fresh, local foods?” Gary Derrigan, the food service director of TCAPS, said we need to start young.

“We need early childhood education with hands-on food experiences and consistent nutrition education in the elementary schools,” he said.

He’s right. The earlier young people develop healthy lifestyles and eating habits, the more likely they are to maintain those habits for the rest of their lives. But what about the older high school students who are complaining about menu changes right now? We can’t give up on them, so what are the best ways to involve them in an adult conversation about school lunch options?

After many discussions with food service directors, educators, high school students, and farmers, I think the answer is to very proactively create a conversation within schools around food. We can acknowledge that the lunchroom is a critical part of the learning environment and that everyone has something to contribute to the discussion. And discussion can bring people together and make them feel part of a community around food.

Consider this example: At the Farm Routes to Prosperity Summit, a Traverse City high school student who attended told us that she recently approached her school’s cooks to ask whether they were serving any local foods. She was surprised and touched to discover that they genuinely appreciated her interest in their work. What if we were to foster more conversations around food and nutrition between the student body and food service staff, and maybe even create a way for students to get involved in in menu development?

During this national transition of school food, we can shape our local school lunch program into something that students, teachers, food service, farmers, and parents all want it to be: delicious and healthy. My hope for the future is that in schools across the country, and especially within our own rich agricultural region, we will hear this sort of exchange more often:

“Ms. Kirsten, is this a healthy food?” a third grader recently asked me when I served her roasted beets grown by a local farmer.

“Why yes it is,” I replied. To which the young girl punched a closed fist into the air triumphantly and shouted, “Bonus!”

Kirsten Gerbatsch is completing her second year as a FoodCorps service member with the Michigan Land Use Institute. She works with schools and students on gardening and other local food activities. 

About the Author

Kirsten Gerbatsch is completing her second year as a FoodCorps service member with the Michigan Land Use Institute. She works with schools and students on gardening and other local food activities. 

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