The New School Lunch

In all its long history, the school lunch has never really been known for culinary
excellence. Tater tot casserole, mystery meat, cold canned fruit-these are the
commonly conjured images of our country’s cafeterias. But to be fair, the National
School Lunch Program, which provides free or reduced-price lunches to 31 million kids
every day, has never aimed to excite the taste buds as much as fill little bellies.

But as industrialized agriculture
and technological advances made
processed foods more available
and convenient, our school kitchens
began to disappear or be stripped
of cooking equipment. In their place
we installed facilities that looked
more like fast food establishments,
with warmers and deep fryers. Or
we brought in vending machines
and branded fast foods to take the
place of a home-cooked meal. It was
no coincidence that in those same
decades, childhood obesity doubled
and adolescent obesity quadrupled.
Studies found that students who ate
school lunch were nearly 30% more
likely to be obese than those that
brought lunch from home. Today,
more than one-third of American
children and teens are overweight or
obese.

Obesity carries huge health risks
for our youth, making them more
vulnerable to cardiovascular disease,
diabetes, cancer, and bone and
joint problems later in life. In an
effort spearheaded by First Lady
Michelle Obama to halt school
lunch’s contributions to our obesity
epidemic, in 2010, Congress
gave the National School Lunch
Program a nutrition makeover.
The new regulations, which were
implemented in 2012, required the
following:

  • Increasing the amount of whole
    grains
  • Shifting to fat-free or low-fat milks
  • Offering fruits and vegetables on
    a daily basis
  • Limiting the amount of calories
    that come from saturated fats
    to 10%
  • Implementing caloric minimums
    and maximums for each meal

Those were the first few steps. By
the school year starting this fall, schools are also required to:

  • Shift to products that are 100%
    “whole grain-rich,” meaning
    they’re mostly whole grain; and
  • Reduce the amount of sodium
    school cafeterias can serve,
    capped at 1,230-1,420 mg a
    day for lunch and 540-640 mg
    for breakfast (depending on
    age group).

But recently, GOP leaders and
the School Nutrition Association
(a lobbying group that represents
food service directors and several
companies that supply school
cafeterias) have challenged the new
regulations, saying they’re too rigid to
be tenable for the majority of school
districts, and sought a one-year waiver
from the guidelines.

Contentions have been high over the
success of the overhaul. Nationwide,
participation in the school lunch
program fell by 1.2 million students
(3.7%) from the 2010-2011 school
year through the 2012-2013 year
after having steadily increased for
many years, according to a report by
the U.S. Government Accountability
Office. The drop has been attributed
to higher lunch costs and student
boycotts over healthier food options.
But despite initial pushback, a study
released in July found that at more
than 500 primary schools around
the U.S., 70% of students who were
surveyed agreed that they generally
liked the new lunches. So for now,
with Washington squabbling and
school districts scrambling, the
big question remains, is a more
nutritional school lunch attainable and
sustainable?

If you ask Bertrand Weber, the director
of culinary and nutrition services
for the Minneapolis Public School
District (MPSD), he would tell you
unequivocally, “yes.” Since assuming
that role in 2012, he has pushed
MPSD to be a role model for other
districts across the country, building
new school kitchens at the rate of
five each year; equipping 31 schools
with salad bars; raising meal program
participation from 58 to 66%, weaning
kids off of processed foods entirely;
and introducing them to things like
100% antibiotic-free beef, kale salads,
and wheat berries.


“Studies found that
students who ate school
lunch were nearly 30
percent more likely to
be obese than those that
brought lunch from
home.”

Weber’s quest to bring healthful food
to the kids of MPSD is a personal one.
His son was diagnosed with Type I
diabetes when he was 7 years old, and
after that, Weber spent a lot of time in
the cafeteria with him, overseeing his
daily nutrition. What he saw appalled
him. He recalls sitting there, thinking “If
we don’t change now, we’re headed
for disaster.” And in just two years, he
has overseen a lot of change for the
good. But it wasn’t easy.

It took time for the staff to get on
board and trust his self-dubbed
“eccentric” vision. It took raising funds
to outfit new kitchens. Every day, it
takes creativity, dedication, flexibility,
and the willingness to accept risk
to keep pushing good, local food
forward. Weber thinks one of the
biggest fallacies to overcome is that
kids don’t like real food.

“I never thought something so green
could taste so good!” exclaimed
one elementary school student at a
MPSD Taste Test event last February.
The program is designed to expose
students to new recipes, and those
chosen as favorites find their way onto
monthly lunch menus. The Wedge is
a proud sponsor of these taste tests,
providing the ingredients for the
15,000 samples of apple kale salad at
the February event. Taste Tests ensure
that kids have a say in the healthier
foods on the menu.

Weber holds up examples like this as
indications of real progress. When he
hears other districts complain about
waste, he responds, “If you believe
kids don’t like real food, is the answer
to serve them not real food? Is the
answer to pump them full of crap?
Because that’s the message that’s
going out. And I don’t buy that.” He
says their waste has gone up some,
but not as much as other districts
have claimed. He admits costs have
gone up, and that they’re having to
make adjustments to deal with the
whole wheat and sodium regulations.
But despite the challenges and
the uncertainty in Washington,
Minneapolis is still pushing full steam
ahead. Because Weber won’t stop
until his kids get the kind of nutritious,
delicious food they all deserve. And
he knows he’s on the right track when
he gets reports back from teachers,
like the following email he received
last year:

“Today I had mobs of students
coming up from the lunchroom
raving about this amazing apple
[it was a Honeycrisp]. I had to ask
multiple students to wait outside
and finish their apple before class
started. I had to ask zero students
to put away the Hot Cheetos.”

“If you think about what they had
for so long,” he says, “they’ve never
experienced school food like this. To
hear about these kinds of things, it
makes you know why you’re doing it.”