Serving Local Fruits and Veggies in Schools Improves Student Behavior
by Brook Adams Law
The average school lunch program costs roughly $2.46 per child to make and tends to offer extremely unhealthy fare, so that children who receive free and reduced price lunches or buy their lunch every day are more likely to be obese than children who bring their lunch to school. As a result of this and other unhealthy habits, including lack of exercise, our nation has a rising epidemic of childhood obesity. Currently in the U.S., 17% of children are obese, a number that has tripled in the past 10 years.
In 2011, the federal government announced new school lunch nutrition guidelines in the form of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. (4) The school district in St. Francis, Missouri is combating the prevalence of unhealthy fare by partnering with local farmers to provide fresh fruits and vegetables as part of regular school lunches. St. Francis District nutrition program supervisor, Wendy Klobe, explained, "Overall, we want to improve the nutritional content of our meals.” The district is able to do this in part through the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which they joined four years ago. Through this, they are able to swap some of their federal funds, usually used for prepared and canned goods, to purchase produce. There is no additional cost to the school.
Because locally grown foods are fresher, students receive a healthier lunch. Another bonus is that less gas is used to transport the foods, resulting in less pollution and a smaller chance of food prices being affected significantly by rising oil prices.
Changing the palates of kids accustomed to super-sweet and extra-salty foods may be a bit harder. Klobe notes the importance of introducing new foods slowly, and making some changes less obvious, such as switching to whole grain pizza crusts and using low-fat cheese. The district also replaced fatty French fries with baked sweet potato fries once a week. Both have been popular options; a locally grown vegetable medley was not.
Other recommendations include “hiding” vegetables in traditional dishes, such as adding spinach to sloppy joes. In addition, sometimes repeated exposure is necessary for kids to try something new and decide they like it.
A few years ago, the Midwestern town of Appleton, Wisconsin replaced all its lunch menus with healthy fare, and serves only water. The result is higher grades, zero truancies, and zero dropouts. They have found that the costs of the program (about $20,000 per year in this case) have been completely offset by zero arrests on school property, no need for security guards, and no litter. Dennis Abrahm, a middle school teacher, noticed a marked difference in his student’s behavior: "I've taught here almost 30 years. I see the kids this year as calmer, easier to talk to. They just seem more rational. I had thought about retiring this year and basically I've decided to teach another year -- I'm having too much fun!" There’s proof that a healthy school lunch can make a big difference!
(Photo:First day of school food, Courtesy of DC Central Kitchen on Flickr)