What Are Your Kids Eating at School?

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by Ashley Anderson

I was asked by my 8-year-old stepdaughter last year to join her for lunch at her elementary school cafeteria in Boulder, Colorado. My first thought was of course “yes” followed by my next thought, “I’ll have to eat before I go.”

My second thought stemmed from an experience, deep in the past when I tried my elementary school’s lunch and was, for lack of a kinder term, revolted. And I wasn’t even a picky eater. That one experience with mystery meat and green beans that were far from green was all it took - I never tried school lunch again. That is, until Olivia, a brown bagger up until then, so cordially invited me.

When I entered the Mesa Elementary School cafeteria, Olivia proudly gave me a tour. She pointed me to a salad bar, with fresh – yes, I said it - fresh vegetables, fruits and homemade salad dressings on display. Olivia also pointed me to the hot lunch area, where there was baked penne marinara, either with natural chicken, or vegetarian. I was pleasantly surprised by what had changed in the school food system and excited to learn that every child was required to take two items from the salad bar.

I piled a salad high on my plate and picked up a dish of vegetarian penne. It was not only delicious, but I found out it was prepared fresh that day, and at appropriate times of the season, some of the salad bar ingredients come from the garden in front of the school.

Prior to my school lunch experience with Olivia, I had begun creating a documentary film called Simplify Me, which highlights the positive steps that restaurants, grocery stores, and food companies are making to provide healthier choices to the public. I quickly realized that including schools in the film was not only a must, but it had actually been a missing piece of the puzzle, because what foods children are exposed to early in life can set them up for healthy or unhealthy food choices as adults.

Next came a Simplify Me interview with Chef Ann Cooper, appropriately known as “The Renegade Lunch Lady.” Chef Ann is the Director of Food Services for Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), and was hired on in 2008 to completely revolutionize the food being served. Before coming to BVSD, she worked with the Berkeley Unified School District in California. Here’s a small taste of Chef Ann’s accomplishments in Berkeley: a study done by the UC Berkeley Center for Weight and Health found that children who ate school lunch in their district ate 3 times more vegetables than those students who brought their lunch from home. Chef Ann is on a mission to turn around the staggering statistic that children in the US are born with shorter estimated life expectancies than their parents due to diet-related illnesses.

Before Chef Ann came on board, kids at BVSD were being served the standard school lunch fare of fried, highly processed foods, and rarely was any cooking going on behind the scenes. In just three years, Chef Ann has worked her magic and completely transformed the program. Today there is no high-fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, colorings, or additives in the food. Now all meals are cooked from scratch, only organic milk is served, and salad bars, like the one Olivia faithfully introduced me to, reside in each of the 55 schools in the district.

Are the meals being served at BVSD perfect? No. One could easily point out all the room there is for improvement. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the conversation of perfection, but at the end of the day, every step in providing children with healthier choices is a step in the right direction. I encourage you to share a meal with a child at your local K-12 school. Whether it’s your child, a niece, nephew, grandchild, or a friend’s child – we need more people aware of what food is being served at schools, and more people willing to get involved in being a stand for the health of young people. Let’s give today’s children the opportunity to live long, healthy, and happy lives.

Ande Anderson, MS, RD, is the Co-Founder of AVAIYA and Co-Creator of the recently released film Simplify Me. Ande holds her masters in nutrition from Bastyr University, where she followed a rigorous, science-based curriculum with a unique focus on whole foods nutrition. To learn more, visit www.simplifymemovie.com.