Food For Thought: 8 Schools That Are Rethinking Lunch

The American school lunch system could be described as a recipe gone wrong.

Depending on who you ask, there is an excess of salt/carbs/lobbying and a shortage of money/time/creativity. Ketchup is sometimes a vegetable (or is it a fruit?), and schools often face the paradoxical problems of waste and want.

That said, there are many school districts taking the initiative not only to put healthier food on their students’ plates, but also to make nutrition and diet part of a larger curriculum.

There are many reasons why we should care about what a child eats, but as far as education is concerned, studies have shown that nutrition is linked to better learning outcomes: A study by the American School Health Association showed that higher consumption of fruits and vegetables directly related to higher test scores. And students who regularly eat breakfast earn, on average, scores that are 17.5 percent higher in math, with increased school attendance overall.

At the epicenter of the school lunch movement is Alice Waters’s Edible Schoolyard Project. More than 20 years ago, the famed chef of Chez Panisse worked with one local Berkeley, California school to launch an onsite farm, together with a nutrition education program. The Edible Schoolyard Project now trains educators to implement similar systems around the globe.

Many of the below programs are descendants of Waters’s initiative, and some are addressing the even more basic needs of their impoverished students. This list is a small sampling of how individual school districts are transforming lemon legislation into (organic, no-sugar-added) lemonade.

These schools are leading the way toward making school lunch a part of the learning process:

  1. One can see direct evidence of Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard initiative at FirstLine Schools, a five school charter network based in New Orleans, Louisiana. Food, nutrition, and gardening education infuses the curriculum, with students cooking food they grow and receiving excellent lessons on nutrition and wellness. Remarkably, the school takes these lessons out into the community, offering fitness and cooking classes to local residents.

  2. The Gloucester Public School District in Massachusetts has partnered with nonprofit Cape Ann Fresh Catch (CAFC) to bring fresh and locally-caught fish into school cafeterias. Students also get to taste test different seafood items, courtesy of the CAFC, an organization that also works to educate teachers on sustainable seafood.

  3. The Earth School, located in New York’s tenement-rich Lower East Side, proves that medium-scale urban gardening is not a faraway dream. The school has built a full-scale rooftop garden (complete with composting system!), the fruits of which students harvest and eat.

  4. Beverly Public Schools, in Massachusetts, have partnered with Green City Growers to support education lessons in the gardens, developing “vegetable-centric curricula tying into Science, Math, Language Arts, and Social Studies.” The program emphasizes hands-on learning, and Civil Eats reports that similar garden-based initiatives have correlated with a 12 to 15 percent increase of standardized test scores.

  5. San Francisco’s Unified School District hired a design firm to rethink the entire lunchroom experience, and to communicate their research and findings to the entire district for future improvement. That firm, IDEO, dimmed the cafeteria lights for better ambience. They also found that students prefer to make decisions about the food they eat rather than be told what to eat, so they modified how food was served and presented, according to grade level. Elementary school students are served food via carts, dim sum–style, giving them time to consider their choices. Middle schoolers wanted the cafeteria to be bubbling with activity, preferring a space where they could read, do homework, or hang out with friends on couches while they ate. For high schoolers, lunch was presented “on the go” if they wanted to spend the hour off campus with friends. Though implementation of the redesign is several budget hikes away, some schools, such as the Willie Brown Middle School, have embraced IDEO’s suggestions and put in place what, to date, they can.

  6. At St. James School in Philadelphia, students sit at a roundtable and are served by the designated captain; there are no long lines at the Di Bruno Bros. Neighborhood Kitchen. The program is called Eatiquette, and it encourages communication about mealtime: The chef announces the meal and often interacts with the kids before they dine, and one teacher sits at each table to model good behavior and eating habits. This program inspired one of IDEO’s suggestions in San Francisco — namely, that students take turns as “table captains,” leading lunch for the day.

  7. Breakfast in the Classroom is an initiative that began in Los Angeles and New York City schools, but has since expanded to the Washington, D.C. region, thanks to Jeffrey Mills, the new director of food services for the district’s schools. Mr. Mills has an unexpected professional background: He used to be a New York restaurateur and consultant, and even made a cameo appearance on hit the T.V. show “Sex and the City.” In order to receive breakfast at school, many students must arrive almost an hour before classes begin. Teachers report that students often feel there is a stigma associated with eating reduced-cost or free meals. Breakfast in the Classroom eliminates these concerns by allowing students to bring their first meal into the classroom and enjoy it, without having to arrive so early. Educators have reported that with improved access to breakfast, students have better focus and perform better on tests.

  8. What about when school’s out for summer? Grand Junction, Colorado, wanted to respond to the fact that during summer, nearly 400,000 hungry children go without their school lunch program, so now a food truck with a friendly name — The Lunch Lizard — visits the parks and playgrounds of lower-income neighborhoods four days a week, offering federally-funded meals free of charge.

As numerous studies have shown, kids who eat better also learn better. While it’s not exactly revolutionary to want kids to have the full bellies they need to succeed in school, some of the programs designed to provide students with healthy lunches are just that. The above programs offer lessons and methods that other schools may borrow to ensure kids have better spaces for learning, eating, and living.

Curious about what lunch is really like at your school? Search for schools near you, and ask a question on any school profile.

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