Above: The school lunch that changed Nikki.
Back in August, the day before students returned to their place of learning for the fall, I eagerly stood with school employees and Groundwork colleagues in the first lunch line of the year at Boyne Falls Public School. It was a moment of great anticipation for me—first because of expectations for the new school year, after many months spent learning to cope with never-ending adjustments to pandemic living. And second, because of the delicious scratch-cooked meal I would soon receive from the school kitchen. Options on the menu included salmon, chicken, rice pilaf, steamed green beans, whole wheat rolls, salad, chopped veggies, and red grapes. It was a delicious start to a year destined to hold many more fresh, rainbow-colored meals at Boyne Falls Public School.
I spent the 2020-21 school year as a FoodCorps AmeriCorps service member at Boyne Falls. FoodCorps has had a presence in the school for five years now. We’ve offered activities including hands-on food education, garden projects, taste tests, and cooking demonstrations to students so they are empowered with the experience and knowledge they need to make lifelong healthy choices.
Central to FoodCorps’s role is collaboration with the school’s teachers, chef, staff, administrators, and families to support every aspect of student health. In turn, the school has developed a model culture of health by integrating physical, mental, social, and emotional components into its definition of wellness. In this sixth year of FoodCorps support in the school, we intend to ensure that the work we’ve done so far lasts for years to come.
As I stood in the lunch line that day before school began, I found myself next to Nikki Little, the early childhood special education teacher. We introduced ourselves, and the synergy of aromas wafting our way from the kitchen eased us into chatting about school food. Nikki shared with me that she had worked for over 20 years in schools downstate before moving up north and starting at Boyne Falls Public School.
One of her prior schools had a strong focus on wellness, similar to Boyne Falls. School administrators led regular workouts and healthy cooking classes for their community. But even at that school, Nikki referred to the cafeteria’s food as “your typical school lunch,” unlike Boyne Falls’ stellar food service. Many of us are familiar with the food Nikki described: meals that consistently push the limit of the different shades of beige possible on a single flimsy styrofoam tray. Over her 23 years in schools downstate, Nikki did not eat a single school cafeteria lunch.
Nikki Little, Farm to School devotee and Early Childhood Special Education Teacher, Boyne Falls Public Schools.
Feeding “your typical school lunch” to students is, of course, far better than feeding them no meal at all—farm-to-school efforts absolutely do not intend to shame schools or parents for providing for students however they can. Not every school has the culinary training, time, staffing, or appliances to serve top-tier meals. But in school kitchens that do obtain the infrastructure they need to offer fresh, local, and scratch-cooked food, it’s a missed opportunity to primarily serve what is most convenient. Innumerable resources to connect school kitchens to what they need for strong farm-to-school programs are out there — it’s only a matter of finding ways to take advantage of them.
Boyne Falls is a leader in showing that holding school food to higher standards is attainable and already happening here in northern Michigan. Case in point: Nikki Little chose to eat the first ever school lunch of her adult life in the Boyne Falls cafeteria just after she began working here and has continued to enjoy her school’s food ever since. Nutrition experts know that adult modeling has a strong influence on the choices children make regarding their health. As a result, school food that entices employees can have a huge impact on students and staff retention.
ikki photographed her plate before taking a first bite of her inaugural school meal. She sent the picture to her old school colleagues and posted it on Instagram to announce this pivotal moment. In sharing this photo, Nikki wasn’t just showing off the delicious food at her new workplace; rather, she was sharing the important and timely message that better school food is entirely possible!
Meal quality, food education, and support for holistic wellness at Boyne Falls have not always been the way they are now. The supportive school administration, years of refining, ongoing food education in eight different classrooms, hundreds of hours in the garden, and pounds upon pounds of fresh produce to prepare all played into the school’s current status. And now, I can see that our network of local school food advocates has the prescription we need to build wellness cultures into even more of our regional schools. We’re connected with expertise from Boyne Falls, Harvest of the Month materials, food marketing plans, culinary training resources, and recipes that can guide us on our way. In areas where we don’t have easy answers about navigating the complex world of school food, we have the passion and energy it takes to find them.
Boyne Falls is shifting perceptions of what “your typical school lunch” can look like, and farm-to-school momentum is building in many other schools in northern Michigan, too. Together with school employees, farmers, families, and partner organizations, school food advocates are determined to find ways to increase kitchen capacity, support menu development, connect local growers to schools, encourage students to try new foods, and do anything else that needs to be done to ease the transition from what’s “typical” to something deliciously bigger. We are determined to work toward a future of school food that fuels kids’ learning and also allows them to connect deeply with the land their food comes from, with their own bodies and minds, and with their community.
This future of healthy school meals and students whose wellness is prioritized on every level is possible, and it is nearby. I can almost taste it.
Hope Heideman, School Nutrition Service Member, FoodCorps/AmeriCorps