Public-school systems throughout the United States have struggled for decades to provide food that are "kid-friendly" but still meet US Department of Agriculture health requirements under the National School Lunch Program. But as food production has moved out of school lunchrooms and into off-site mass production facilities, the nutritional quality of school lunches has declined. According to the food web site Culinate, most school cafeterias barely meet the School Lunch Act's minimum nutritional standards, which stipulate that school lunches contain approximately 600 calories and that no more than 30 percent of those calories come from fat. Slack school lunch standards, along with the widespread availability of junk food in public-school cafeterias, is at least partly to blame for everything from early-onset Type 2 diabetes to America's childhood obesity epidemic.
Parents across the country have responded by demanding more local, organic, vegetarian, and healthy options for school food, via efforts such as the Better School Food Project -- leading some school districts to appreciate the benefits in providing healthier, more natural, more nutritious food.
Programs that bring the movement for more better school lunches directly into the schools take the eat-local-and-organic approach even further, with on-site gardens that allow kids to produce, harvest, and eat fresh produce year-round. Such programs have proven surprisingly successful at improving children's attitudes toward healthy eating, while providing healthier alternatives to traditional school-lunch diets. One that we've covered on Worldchanging is the Edible Schoolyard project in Berkeley, Calif. Another great project is is the The Garden of Wonders, part of the Abernathy Elementary School Scratch Kitchen pilot project in Portland, Oregon. Founded seven years ago by a small group of students and parents working in a local community garden, the garden was moved in 2005 to Abernathy Elementary, where the new facilities included twice as much garden space and an educational "scratch kitchen" where kids learn to make home-cooked meals. Today, the Garden of Wonders and scratch kitchen are part of the school's educational curriculum; each of Abernathy's 300-plus students must participate in the program for three full weeks every year.
Although produce from the garden makes up only a small portion of what gets served in the cafeteria, the benefits of teaching kids where their food comes from go beyond food production itself. Studies have shown it improves science scores, aids in stress relief, increases physical activity, and gets kids involved in their communities. Additionally, growing vegetables actually makes kids more likely to eat vegetables: according to Abernathy's principal, children are "more willing to try" formerly "strange" produce if they've seen it growing in the garden.
These programs in Berkeley and Portland are just two examples of grassroots movements springing up around the country -- part of a parent-led backlash against the highly processed chicken-fingers-and-pizza lunches that have become ubiquitous in public schools. Demanding higher school lunch standards remains a good first step; helping kids to understand where their food comes from, however, is truly worldchanging.
Top image: Farmer's market veggies. Credit: Emily Gertz