In late March, three members of the RSU school nutrition team took a trip to Washington DC to share their success. They brought with them the message that meeting current school nutrition guidelines, and getting students excited about healthy eating, is challenging but possible.
The PEW Charitable Trust, in collaboration with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, reached out to schools in specific states who were meeting the new, more rigid guidelines with success. They asked teams from these states to come and share their stories with policymakers in Washington as they look toward reauthorizing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act.
Jeanne Reilly, the director of school nutrition; Eliza Adams, a health teacher; and chef and School Nutrition and Wellness Coordinator Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro joined a project manager from the Let’s Go program and a kitchen manager from New Sweden, Maine to make the trip. “We went as a team and we were able to tell our story to people on Capitol Hill about what has it taken for us to be successful,” said Reilly.
US Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines, which changed under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, have been met with bad press that says kids are refusing to eat school lunch, participation has dropped, and too much food is ending up in the trash. But Reilly said the experience in RSU14 has been different. “In the last several years since the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, we’ve shown more students eating lunch, not less and less,” she said. The goal of the PEW Charitable Trust was to show that districts can be successful with these guidelines, to counteract a push to roll these regulations back.
Just after the trip, Reilly said, Senator John Hoeven from North Dakota introduced the Healthy School Meals Flexibility Act, which would provide flexibility to schools in their compliance with the USDA requirements, specifically addressing the whole grain and sodium requirements. The School Nutrition Association has endorsed this bill and released a position paper asking for both changes in the requirements and more funding. The requested changes would bring whole grain rich requirements back to 50 percent rather than the current 100 percent, allow schools to decide whether or not to require students to take a serving of fruit or vegetable, and suspend the implementation of lower sodium targets.
One of the goals of the trip, according to Reilly, was to show legislators that the guidelines can be followed successfully. “If we roll the standards back, what is the message?” Reilly asked, adding that she’d rather stick with it and gradually turn the tide towards children becoming enthusiastic about healthy eating. “We’re educating them and they are learning that healthy food can be tasty and delicious and exciting and fun, too.”
Cowens-Gasbarro said that the DC trip was an opportunity to promote the idea that through hard work, dedication and keeping real, fresh foods in schools, RSU14 has been able to have a successful school nutrition program.
Reilly acknowledged that meeting the guidelines isn’t easy. “It takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of engagement, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth the process,” she said. Because RSU14 has been meeting the standards for longer than they have been required, these standards have become the norm in the district. In five years’ time, Reilly said, students won’t know anything different. “To go backwards would seem counterproductive,” she said.
Cowens-Gasbarro said elementary students are happy to see fresh fruits and vegetables included with their meal. “It is at this age that we are really trying to teach and create lifelong healthy eating habits by exposing them to a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said. She added that she believes keeping the requirement in place is important because for some students, school lunch is their only exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Doing school nutrition the right way means spending more money, and districts are not fully funded to meet the new standards, which can be a big challenge. Part of the message the group brought to Washington was that the standards can be met, but it takes more staff, more funding and better support for struggling districts to make a difference.
RSU14 sees students get excited about healthy foods through a variety of innovative programs and initiatives. These include kitchen staff cooking meals from scratch, offering taste testing in classrooms and the cafeteria, and educating students on nutrition in health classes. Programs like their “eating through the alphabet,” where students tried fruits or vegetables from A to Z, add a fun element to serving healthy lunches.
“What Jeanne and Samantha are doing for the school nutrition program at RSU14 is so positive, they are worthy of being an outstanding example of success,” said Adams. “Our student participation in the school lunch program is up 20 to 30 percent based on the creative and delicious foods offered, and all foods meet the guidelines.”
Their model of including students in the process makes both parents and students more trusting of the program and more willing to try the new and different foods offered said Cowens-Gasbarro. “Asking for their feedback and recommendations, as well as explaining how the school nutrition program works, has really helped them to feel as though they are part of the changes and more accepting of everything we are trying to accomplish in our school nutrition program,” she said.