SHNAC (not SNAC) Gives Kids a Voice in School Health

March 24, 2010

At the first meeting of our school’s Student Health and Nutrition Advisory Council (SHNAC!), the group elected officers, established norms and set goals in just a half hour. Yesterday I was honored to join the group, and I was amazed at their awareness and interest in making their school healthier. Here are some highlights:

  • Until recently, students picked up their lunch trays in the cafeteria and brought them back to their classrooms. Our principal estimated this took about 15 minutes out of each day, so in the meeting, we ran the numbers to find that over the entire school year, students were spending the equivalent of about 7.5 days waiting in the cafeteria line! Think of all the learning they missed out on!
  • They said they wanted bottled water as a beverage choice for lunch, and we discussed dispensers to avoid generating waste.
  • Someone suggested a build-your-own breakfast bar with oatmeal, cream of wheat, fruit, yogurt, granola and other healthy items. They thought a fruit and salad bar for lunch would also be great.
  • One student mentioned that we need to consider the cost of such changes because ‘healthy stuff is more expensive.” Another concurred, “Yeah, like at McDonalds, have you noticed a burger is $2 and a salad is $5, and the yogurt parfait is made with canned fruit!”
  • I asked them how they knew something was healthy or not. They said knew colorful fruits and vegetables where healthier and they were also familiar with the USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid.
  • We discussed whether the Chicken Taco was healthier than the Chicken Patty on Bun. One student thought the sandwich would be a better choice if the taco shell is fried. We thought about what kinds of foods we usually eat with tacos (they named lettuce, tomatoes, cheese, salsa), and Chicken Patty on Bun (ketchup, mustard, pickles).
  • During the taco vs. sandwich discussion, one student said there’s no way we can see the vitamins inside the food, so how do we really know? I asked them if they knew what a whole food was. We talked about nature vs the factory. One student said he used whole foods to make risotto in the after school cooking club led by a parent/chef.
  • For several years now, our school has hosted a weekend organic farmers market. This year, for the first time, our students will run a booth there, selling craft and food items they have made.

News Flash: Kids Like Broccoli!

March 24, 2010

A mom at our school sent me this note earlier this month:

Hey there~

I thought you would enjoy this story.  The other day when H. and I were talking about the different parts of his day, we discussed lunch.  He was a little upset.  Why?  He had eaten all of his steamed broccoli and none of the other kids wanted to share theirs!  Everyone was gobbling the broccoli.  He said, “Ms. K. makes really good broccoli!  Perfectly crunchy.”

I felt so lucky to have Ms. K. in our lives.  What a testament to preparing veggies properly.  I think there are many of us who lost years of veggie consumption after being turned off by overcooked mushy green stuff camouflaged with “cheese” sauce!  Also goes to show kids will eat vegetables without bribery or having to hide them in other foods.

Increasing Participation in School Meals

March 1, 2010

My child has just started attending a public school in a district that has had about as many food service contractors as it has had superintendents. Currently, Sodexo holds the contract and last week, I met with their representatives, our cafeteria manager, the school principal and another mom to talk about what we could do to help market school meals.

At our school, only about 28% of our students qualify for free and reduced price meals under the National School Lunch Act. So few students eat school meals that our cafeteria team was reduced by one. That makes it even harder for our manager to prepare the fresh, homemade dishes on the menu. That’s right. Homemade. At our school, we are lucky to have very few packaged items on the menu. (We recently asked that Super Doughnuts be taken off the menu and they were, thankfully!)

For the meeting, I prepared a short list of things we can do to market our cafeteria’s offerings. We divided the list into two parts — what can be done now, with little or no money, and what we want to do in the fall when school starts again. Here is the list:

Phase 1: Spring 2010

1. Meet with cafeteria staff and principal to find out what we can do to help. (Check!)

2. Create a parent and student survey to find out if there is a negative perception of our cafeteria food. The survey should find out what drives the decision to eat in the cafeteria or not. Is it culture or religion? Allergies? Vegetarian/vegan diets? Food quality issues relating to organics, hormones, humane treatment of animals?

3. Make sure parents know that good food is being served at school. (At breakfast, for instance, there is almost always a choice of oatmeal, cream of wheat or grits. Our cafeteria manager serves fresh fruit and vegetables as often as possible, and takes care to make sure the food isn’t overcooked.) We agreed to start sending fliers home weekly, each one communicating a few short facts about our school’s cafeteria. Topics include free breakfast for everyone, applying for free/reduced price meals, paying outstanding credits (currently $5000!), nutrition concepts and more.

4. Make sure that  parents know of any changes to the menu, which is printed monthly for the entire district, but is subject to change.

5. Form a Student Nutrition Advisory Council (SNAC). The students will act as ambassadors to the cafeteria, giving the cafeteria a fun name and creating a nice looking menu. On sample days, they can wear chef’s hats and serve their friends a new food to try.

6. Get everyone on the same page. Teachers can be very influential, and should be discouraged from making negative comments about school meals. Talking to students about healthy choices is one thing, making blanket statements is quite another.

7. Make a list of how food is used in the classroom and after school programs, specifically snack-making and cooking lessons. Are the lessons covering nutrition, food literacy and food marketing concepts as well? Research nutrition education programs for Fall 2010.

8. Our students currently eat lunch in their classrooms, which has virtually eliminated discipline problems, but they still line up to get their trays from the cafeteria, then carry their food back to their rooms, some of which are two floors up! Our principal has been trying to get carts so meals can be delivered to the classrooms (and served family style). Before the next week was out, our Sodexo reps had delivered the carts we needed!

Stage 2: Fall 2010

This spring and at the beginning of the school year, put plans in place for the following events:

1. Regular samplings of fresh fruits and vegetable that are typically served in the cafeteria. The samples will be offered to all students, whether they eat school meals or packed lunches.

2. Invite parents to eat breakfast and lunch on a regular basis.

3. Hold a food/health fair: coordinate it with a garden harvest, sample fresh fruits and vegetables and other healthy menu items, parent chefs will demonstrate recipes or lead hands-on cooking lessons.

4. Hold a commodity cook-off in the spirit of Iron Chef. Invite cafeteria staff, parents, local chefs to participate, consider making it a fundraiser to pay for serving equipment, etc.

The cafeteria team was grateful for the help, and we learned that more fresh fruits and vegetables were coming from the USDA, that salads would be on the menu every day for the next week, and that Sodexo could help secure grant funding for our SNAC committee.

Promoting School Meals with Weekly Fliers

March 1, 2010

This is the first of the weekly fliers we are sending home with students:

Quick Facts About Breakfast at Our School

  1. Breakfast is FREE for every student. Adults pay just $2.50 (less than a latte!).
  2. Breakfast is served in the cafeteria from 7:45 – 8:15. On assembly days, breakfast is served in the classroom.
  3. Research confirms that breakfast eaters…
    • have higher test scores, work faster, make fewer errors and are more creative
    • are less likely to be sent to the principal or visit the school nurse
    • are more cooperative and get along with classmates
    • are healthier and have improved attendance
    • are more able to concentrate on learning (Action for Healthy Kids)

Make a date to have breakfast at Our School with your family, other parents and friends!

If you have questions about school meals, please contact our cafeteria manager!

Other Quick Fact topics may be…
The Business of School Meals (reimbursements, costs, etc.)
Applying for free/reduced price meals
What is a Whole Food?
Eating For Color
Favorite Children’s Books About Food
Tips for Helping Your Child Enjoy Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
Food Additives to Avoid

Real Foodies Go to the Movies

October 27, 2009

When a group of us concerned parents were meeting once a month, we always thought it would be fun to get together and watch our favorite movies about food. We DID screen Two Angry Moms, and it was eye-opening. Here are our other favorites:

King Corn: “Two recent college graduates plant a single acre of corn and set out to follow it on its journey from the seed to the dinner plate.”

Fast Food Nation: “Inspired by the incendiary bestseller that exposed the hidden facts behind America’s fast food industry comes a powerful drama that takes an eye-opening journey into the dark heart of the All-American meal.”

Grocery Store Wars: Cuke Skywalker, Princess Lettuce and their friends fight against Darth Tater. May The Farm be with you.

The Meatrix Trillogy: Leo the pig takes the red pill offered by Moopheus and sees the real world of factory farming.

The Future of Food: Provides an overview of the key questions raised by consumers as they become aware of genetically modified foods.

Food, Inc.: “In Food, Inc., filmmaker Robert Kenner lifts the veil on our nation’s food industry, exposing the highly mechanized underbelly that has been hidden from the American consumer with the consent of our government’s regulatory agencies, USDA and FDA. Our nation’s food supply is now controlled by a handful of corporations that often put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our own environment.”

Fresh: “FRESH celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system. Each has witnessed the rapid transformation of our agriculture into an industrial model, and confronted the consequences: food contamination, environmental pollution, depletion of natural resources, and morbid obesity. Forging healthier, sustainable alternatives, they offer a practical vision for a future of our food and our planet.”

What’s your favorite foodie movie?!?!

Tools You Can Use: Constructive Classroom Rewards

October 26, 2009

This handout from CSPI explains why the best policy is not to use food to reward children for good behavior or academic performance: Constructive Classroom Rewards: Promoting Good Habits While Protecting Children’s Health

You can read more about how to make rewards, fundraisers, snacks and celebrations healthier in this guide from KC Healthy Kids and Blue Cross and Blue Shield: “Healthy Alternatives to School Celebrations, Rewards, Fundraisers and Snacks.”

Real Food Challenge: Good ‘ol PB&J vs the Uncrustable

August 5, 2009

PB&J is one of our go-to quick fixes for lunches and snacks. If we expect to be away from the house for more than a few hours I take some along so we don’t have to eat out. My kid’s getting protein, healthy fats, carbs and whole grains, plus a little bit of fruit, and because I use real food, she’s not getting high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils. It takes only minutes to make and she loves it. What could be more perfect?

Nothing in my opinion, but the makers of Uncrustables – those white bread, additive laden sandwiches sold by the box in the freezer aisle – would have us believe otherwise. Curious about whether they were better, cheaper, faster, I went to an urban grocery store to do some math and read some labels. Here’s what I found out:

1. “Natural” is a marketing term and it’s not regulated. Natural flavoring may not be safer than artificial flavoring as stated in this 2004 MSNBC.comarticle by food editor Phil Lempert, and three different brands of “natural” peanut butter had very different looking ingredient lists. I had to read several labels before I found the brand or item that had the fewest ingredients or the most ingredients that could be found in my kitchen.

Bread: Have you read bread labels lately? You need just four ingredients to make it from scratch: yeast, flour, salt and water. Yet even the Nature’s Pride 100% Natural, 100% Whole Wheat bread I found at the store has eleven ingredients, and six are a mystery: wheat gluten, cultured wheat flour, natural flavor, whey, soy lecithin, cultured corn solids. They sound innocent enough, but I don’t really know what they are made of.

Peanut Butter: This one’s easy. Smuckers, the makers of Uncrustables, also makes Natural Peanut Butter. Two ingredients: Peanuts, salt.

Jam: It was not so easy to find an inexpensive jam that wasn’t sweetened with high fructose corn syrup or the misleading “grape juice concentrate” which, along with pear- and apple-juice concentrate, is often stripped of its nutrients and flavor, leaving only the sugar. I settled on Polaner Strawberry Preserves: Strawberries, Sugar, Fruit Pectin, Citric Acid.

Now for the Uncrustables (the circled items are actual foods)…

Uncrustables ingredients

2. It’s cheaper to make your own. A loaf of bread, jar of peanut butter and jar of jam can make 18 half sandwiches for a total of $8.43.  That’s 47 cents a sandwich. A 4-count box of Uncrustables costs $2.75 at this store, making them about 69 cents each. Here’s the breakdown:

Peanut Butter: $2.69 for 14 servings

Bread: $2.25 for 18 slices

Jam: $3.49 for 24 servings

4. The homemade version is just as convenient: Uncrustables need to thaw before you can eat them. This may take around 3-5 minutes, which is about the time it takes to make PB&J from scratch. If you don’t have three minutes in the morning to make a sandwich, spend ten on the weekend and make a whole loaf of bread into sandwiches. Stack them back in the bread bag and pop them in your freezer.

5. The Crust: Apparently a study by German researchers found that bread crust contains eight times more of the cancer fighting antioxidant pronyl-lysine that does the soft squishy center. But I’m not a Ph.D. so I don’t really know how to decipher scientific studies. I am a mom, though, and I don’t want my daughter to think she needs special food just because she’s a kid. Talk about inconvenient. So I serve her the crust and let her decide whether to eat it. Sometimes she does, sometimes she doesn’t.

Taste Test: I have to admit the Uncrustable tasted better than I expected. I’m tempted to have my kid do a side-by-side comparison, but I’m pretty sure I know how it will turn out. (Remember the McDonald’s food wrapper experiment?) It doesn’t matter anyway. I’m the grown-up and if I give her the homemade version, that’s what she’ll eat.

Decision: I’m sticking with the real deal. It’s quick and convenient, it travels well, it’s less expensive, my kid likes it, and, when made with ingredients that are as close to their natural state as possible, it’s nutritious.

And now it’s your turn: What labeling/marketing/pricing trick bugs you the most?