Five Reasons for Optimism on the School Food Front

by Sarah Henry on May 6, 2010 · 45 comments

in food organizations,food politics,school food

Wow, you step off the school food circuit for a couple of weeks and lots of interesting and hopeful stuff happens. Countdown until school gets out — about six weeks in our district — so I’ll be blogging on various aspects of school food over the next few weeks.

For now, a little roundup, a cheat sheet of sorts, to bring you up to date on recent developments. And don’t worry, even though it’s testing week in my town, there won’t be a quiz after you read this list.

FoodCorps: How (potentially) fabulous is FoodCorps? An AmeriCorps program (think domestic Peace Corps) that would put members in school gardens and establish farm-to-school relationships, particularly targeting towns lacking regular access to fresh produce. Perhaps the most reported item out of last week’s annual W. K. Kellogg Foundation Food & Community Conference (for coverage check out Civil Eats, 5 Second Rule, and The Washington Post), seed funding is in place and a tentative start date of 2011 announced. FoodCorps is a project of the National Farm to School Network, and the planning committee includes good food folks like Curt Ellis, who co-created the documentary film King Corn, and NFSN’s Debra Eschmeyer. Similar state programs are already up and running, including in Montana, and these initiatives may well serve as models for the national program.

Will FoodCorps folks also help out in school cafeteria kitchens prepping all that garden produce for scratch cooking or the salad bar?  As Food Revolution revealed to the nation, lunch ladies like Alice Gue need extra hands to help get good food served up at school.

Food Revolution Legacy: Whatever you think about what Jamie Oliver did or didn’t achieve in Huntington, West Virginia, his admirable efforts there have created a momentum that is likely to have a ripple effect for some time to come, both in that town and across the country. Heck, at least Huntington kindergartners now know their veggies as well as their colors.  The Naked Chef himself says he’ll continue with his U.S. school food crusade and you’ll find references to the six-week show in predictable and unlikely places. For starters, check out this list from the MRI Technician Schools (what is that, exactly?): 80 Ways You Can Join the Food Revolution and Jane Black’s positive piece for The Washington Post, which lays out the many benefits of bringing the Brit wonderboy to town.

Changes in Chicago: The Windy City’s school board recently adopted new nutritional standards that make Chicago one of the largest school districts in the nation to try to exceed federal school food so-called gold standard guidelines.  Next fall, a greater variety of vegetables, with more dark-green and orange veggies and fewer starchy ones, will appear on school lunch menus. More whole grains too. And less healthy stuff will either get the flick or be served less often: Sayonara nachos, doughnuts, and Pop-Tarts. The national non-profit Healthy Schools Campaign is working with the Chicago public school district to challenge 100 schools to meet this higher grade over the next three years, writes Melissa Graham, of Purple Asparagus. Graham’s nonprofit plans to work closely with Chicago school parents to make sure as many schools as possible “go for the gold.”

Blogosphere Beats the Drum: There’s growing momentum to this school food revolution, as I point out in a previous post, and the cause is getting loads of attention online. Case in point: Over at Simple, Good and Tasty, Lee Zukor of Minneapolis served up a school lunch challenge to his readers — go eat with your kids and report back from the field. Way to both educate and mobilize a community. Folks across the country ate, snapped, and got all fired up over the muck that passes for a meal at school. Read all about the results right here.

And, of course, Mrs. Q continues to report from the trenches every day at Fed Up with Lunch: The School Lunch Project. Recently she made an appearance on Good Morning America, bringing her blog-based, fix-school-food campaign to a much wider audience.

Children Champion the Cause: Check out a newcomer to the school food blog arena, School Food Found Guilty, which chronicles what’s for lunch in a public middle school for girls in New York City. The students’ descriptions are classic: “Now just look at this type of food…Our stomach ached from the potato salad. It just tasted so bitter and horrible! It also felt so gooey and felt like mud. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich was squished and tasted like expired food.  The jelly felt so gooey and the peanut butter was like ice! Everyone felt like vomitting [sic] out all of the food.” Tell us how you really feel about the food, kids.

How about all that? What have I missed in the last few weeks? Is change happening in the cafeteria of your local schools? Let us know below. For now, class dismissed.

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{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa Graham May 6, 2010 at 2:16 pm


Great piece. We are very optimistic about what’s going on in Chicago. While Chartwells’ changes aren’t perfect, they’re definitely a move in the right direction. It’s up to us, as parents and educators, to make sure that our kids are educated about the benefits of eating healthily so that they’ll want to choose good food over bad. I will say that I did try the flash-frozen locally grown veggies, which were pretty darn good. Good taste is always a good incentive.

A question on the Food Corps, do you know how a non-profit applies to have one work for it? We could sure use one as our programming is probably going to triple in the coming year. We’ve got a terrific intern who signed on for the summer, but I would love to get more hands involved.

Thanks again for mentioning our work.

Melissa Graham
Purple Asparagus


Sarah Henry May 6, 2010 at 2:34 pm

Hey Melissa,

Thanks for chiming in. And just for clarity for readers: Chartwells are the food service providers in Chicago (and elsewhere in the country), yes?

As for FoodCorps: Just ask. Click on their link on this page and surf around and you’ll see that they’re open to input and suggestions and still very much in the planning stages. I suspect it might be a good time to let your needs be known. Though I also suspect they’ll be inundated with requests.

There’s a FoodCorps meeting this month in Detroit that you may want to look into.

Good luck!


Melissa Graham May 6, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Yes, that’s who Chartwells is. I believe it’s owned by Compass.

Would the meeting be associated with the Farm to Cafeteria conference? That will be great as I’m going with Healthy Schools Campaign (I get to meet the wives of Arne Duncan and Tom Vilsack). Though, I may be at the Detroit/Sox game during the Foodcorps meeting. Playing a little hooky with husband and son (we’re all die hard Sox fans).


Susan Rubin May 6, 2010 at 2:41 pm

While I am optimistic on the school food front, I want to warn everyone that we still have loads and loads of work to do. Somehow people think because Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver are doing high profile work, that school lunch is on its way to being fixed!
Sadly despite all the great things going on across the country, my school continues to serve Vitamin Water, chicken nuggets and much much more junk.

As you mentioned, there are only 6 weeks left to school. We’ll lose some of our mojo over the summer, I recommend that communities continue to meet regularly over the vacation and make solid plans for high visibility school food events for the fall. Here’s some ideas:
Set up a food based film series at your local library.
Create a workshop on school food and children’s health. Invite pediatricians and dentists to speak on what they are seeing in their offices.
Connect with your local Slow Food chapter to hold a pot luck and have a speaker from your local food community.

Stay idealistic and persistent!


Sarah Henry May 6, 2010 at 3:58 pm

Susan I knew I could count on you for a sobering and realistic assessment of how things are going, since you’ve been doing this work for years.

Real change is hard and can take a long time to bring about. But I am encouraged with all the myriad developments out there.

Glad to hear that you’re optimistic too — and I think your advice to stay idealistic and persistent is spot on.


Melissa Graham May 6, 2010 at 5:50 pm

I would also suggest finding organizations working on this issue in your area. Many of them (like mine) will welcome help in mobilizing over the summer months. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel and compete for the attention of existing programs. I have found in our work that most people, parents in particular, have limited time and if they feel like their attention and resources are being pulled in different places, ultimately they do nothing.

One of things that I wish Jamie Oliver had done with his program and website was to provide a listing of various programs working on this area in different cities. For example, there are several organizations/resources in Chicago from which his staff could have easily culled this information on orgs both big and small and I’m sure that other cities have similar initiatives.


Sarah Henry May 6, 2010 at 7:33 pm

Melissa: Why don’t you copy & paste this suggestion for Jamie O’s peeps and press send? My sense is they may well be open to such suggestions and, as you say, no need to reinvent the wheel here.


Melissa Graham May 6, 2010 at 7:40 pm


Do you happen to have an email handy? I got their grassroots call a few months back, but that was many many emails ago.



Alexandra May 6, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Wow! Lots going on. Very exciting. Did you hear about the new governmental report linking chemicals to cancer? (See links on my blog post today and in one of the comments.) That will go hand in hand with the organic movement and speed up the demand for organic food for school children.


Sarah Henry May 7, 2010 at 7:39 am

Yes, I did Alexandra. Not surprising, yet still shocking. You may well be right on the organic front. Here’s hoping.


The Writer's [Inner] Journey May 6, 2010 at 3:30 pm

The evolution of all this is so interesting. It makes me wonder when, exactly, school food went “bad.” Growing up I recall buying hot lunch. The offering was always pretty well balanced (a protein, a starch, a veg, a fruit, milk) and none of the kids seemed to mind the taste. Of course, there was only hot lunch – one choice. That or bring your own. But that was long ago, an era where fish was served on Fridays in public schools and it was a big deal to bring a can of soda from home for lunch. ~Meredith


Sarah Henry May 6, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Good question, Meredith. School lunch actually has a pretty complex & fascinating history which is well document in Janet Poppendieck’s recent book “Free For All: Fixing School Food in America,” the subject of a previous post. Well worth a read
(the book, I mean, though the post isn’t bad either;)


MarthaAndMe May 6, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Wow! That is all wonderful, positive news. I especially love the FoodCorps concept!


Sarah Henry May 7, 2010 at 7:40 am

You’re not alone, M&Me. Though those middle school girls in Queens who are blogging up a storm about school food have lots of fans too.


Sheryl K May 6, 2010 at 3:40 pm

All I can say is…it’s about time!

Oh, and this: I wish when my kids were buying school lunch, healthier options were on the absolutely-dreadful menu.


Sarah Henry May 6, 2010 at 4:00 pm

Can you recall any specifics, Sheryl? If so, do tell.


Susan May 6, 2010 at 4:50 pm

We moved around a lot when I was a kid, so I saw a lot of different food lunches, but mostly I brought my own (I was a picky eater and still am). I remember most of my classmates ate pizza or ate French fries and called it lunch (ironically, those were usually the skinny girls who couldn’t bring themselves to eat a full meal). But at one school, we had a small salad bar and on certain days of the week, we’d have a baked potato bar. In my opinion, one of the problems is that even when healthy meals are available, many kids will just choose to eat pizza and drink soda if those options are available.


Sarah Henry May 6, 2010 at 5:16 pm

Oh, I think you’re right Susan. Did you see all those kids choosing chocolate and strawberry milk over plain and fries, nachos, and pizza over salad, stirfry, and pasta on Food Revolution?

And I betcha those gals who only ate fries aren’t so skinny anymore. Just saying.


Melanie Haiken May 6, 2010 at 5:17 pm

I bounce back and forth between optimism at all the great news and happenings, and pessimism that it’s going to take a lot more than this to change the eating habits of the average American kid. In particular, I despair about high school kids, who are much more independent and hard to keep track of, foodwise. In my experience, they typically rush out the door with a few dollars in their pocket and you just know they’re going to go whereever that few dollars buys them the most food, i.e. Burger King and the like. Recently I was reading about the food truck trend, and I had a thought; wouldn’t it be a great win-win if taco trucks and other mobile restaurants went to high school campuses at lunchtime? They’d do whopping business and the kids would have healthier choices.


Sarah Henry May 6, 2010 at 5:27 pm

Brilliant idea, Mel, especially with all those healthy street eats around our area. I may just even float that one on Twitter and see what people think. I know the Cupcake gal is close to the university campus some days (and is a decadent treat) but we have falafel, ahi tuna rolls, veggie pies and other wholesome offerings in the mix.

And thanks, as always, for giving me a sense of what’s ahead. Though it’s still hard for me to imagine my staunch vegetarian, raw food afficionado heading to a Burger King for lunch. I guess I’m yet to see the power of peer pressure in full force. Can’t wait.


Christine at Origami Mommy May 6, 2010 at 5:54 pm

Great roundup of what’s going on….even though my children eat packed lunch at their school, I am always keeping up with (or trying to, anyway) what is going on with school lunch reform and along with that, food marketing towards children. Sometimes I despair of any real change happening, but it does seem like awareness is spreading, which is a great first step.


Sarah Henry May 6, 2010 at 7:37 pm

I think you’re right Christine, that awareness — and widespread awareness at that — is a crucial first step. By the way, I’m in the same boat: My boy has always resisted school lunch, even though I paid for him to give it a go. But I volunteer at my kid’s school and I’m well aware that all children deserve — and don’t always get — wholesome food.


Cheryl May 6, 2010 at 8:26 pm

OK, I’m familiar with most of these initiatives, but hadn’t heard of the School Food Found Guilty blog. That’s priceless. And, in fact, having kids starting to demand better food themselves, and revolt?, may very well be the last piece of this entire puzzle.

I hope their blog gets a lot of eyes.


Sarah Henry May 6, 2010 at 11:23 pm

Me too. And I love that kids are getting in the mix, including those two NYC school gals who narrate that great new documentary “What’s on Your Plate?”


Alisa Bowman May 7, 2010 at 3:41 am

This is all encouraging. For the most part, I see schools turning the corner with all things health. That’s mostly because parents are getting on the health wagon, too, and are demanding this. I think the education has to go both ways–educate the young so they can grow up with the knowledge, but also educate the adults so they can pressure the system to impart the knowledge.


Sarah Henry May 7, 2010 at 7:13 am

Yes, Alisa, you’re correct, parental involvement is crucial. For a recent, real, live example of how moms and dads can make a difference on school food, check out what fellow commenter and friend (Hi Cheryl, see above) has to say on this very subject in her latest post:


Mark May 7, 2010 at 4:01 am

Great article and thanks for the mention of Healthy Schools Campaign! There is a lot going on and still more work to do. We all still need to plug away and try to get more money for better school food at the federal level. We have about 3 months before the current Child Nutrition Act expires. We need a new bill by then.

And great to know your’re going to the Farm to Cafeteria conference Melissa. I know many of the founders of Food Corp will be there so there will be lots of info about how to get involved.


Sarah Henry May 7, 2010 at 7:15 am

Hi Mark, and thanks for working the federal CNA bill into the discussion, as when all is said and done, it comes down to having the dollars to bring about change.

And I love how a little professional-social networking is happening on this thread. There’s your answer, Melissa. May I suggest that you and Mark check in offline?


Melissa Graham May 7, 2010 at 7:26 am

How funny. Actually, I’ll be with Mark quite a bit as I’m going with the Healthy Schools group for the national Cooking up Change competition. I may also see you in about an hour, Mark, if you’re in the office.


Donna Hull May 7, 2010 at 7:13 am

I’ve lost touch with what’s going on in our public schools. It’s gratifying to see parents and food writers working positively to solve the problems with school cafeteria food as well as in other areas of public schooling. Keep up the good work.


Sarah Henry May 7, 2010 at 7:17 am

Folks have been working tirelessly on this topic for years, even decades. I tip my hat to them all.


Michelle (What's Cooking) May 7, 2010 at 9:08 am

Great roundup, Sarah.

Please don’t forget the little people – all of the parents who are working together towards positive change in their communities! We have been working hard to improve the food in our local schools and have been blown away by the progress we have enacted in such a short time. Perhaps it’s the momentum generated by Michelle Obama and Jamie Oliver – but it doesn’t matter.

What matters is that change IS happening – and that matters most for the kids who rely on these school meals as the main source of their nutrition!

Here is my most recent post about our journey. We are documenting the whole thing, in the hopes that we can inspire other parent groups to do the same thing:


Sarah Henry May 7, 2010 at 9:21 am

No worries, Michelle, not only will I not forget “the little people,” I tip my hat to you all and write about some of you on this very blog!

It’s great what you’ve got going on in your school district. Keep going!


Ruth Pennebaker May 8, 2010 at 5:53 am

It’s so nice to hear some encouraging news for a change, Sarah. These programs sound fascinating.


Sarah Henry May 8, 2010 at 9:28 am

Yes, Ruth, while I don’t want to downplay the real challenges ahead, I am encouraged by all the initiatives — at the local, state, and national level — on school food.

Of course, $$$money$$$, and looming, further budget cuts, are huge hurdles so we’ll have to see how things play out. Fingers crossed.


Kristen May 8, 2010 at 11:35 am

I’m moving to a new state before the next school year so I’m interested to see what’s going on there. In our current school and district, I haven’t even heard whisperings about changing the daily chicken nugget fare they’re serving up now. In fact, my middle schooler came home on Friday saying that they were passing out free pizza in the cafeteria. Nothing wrong with pizza now and then, but what about passing out apples, oranges, something fresh? Thanks for all the good info on this post!


Sarah Henry May 8, 2010 at 1:55 pm

Hi Kristen, Thanks for the report from the trenches, depressing as the news of daily chicken nuggets may be. And, yes, free, fresh produce — now there’s an idea.

And the kids will come: I’ve seen it myself at the Edible Schoolyard, when the garden staff gives away surplus greens, say, at the end of the school day.


Edible San Diego May 10, 2010 at 1:48 pm

Montrose County School District (Colorado) is going back to real food. Gone are corn dogs, hot dogs, country-baked steak, breakfast pizzas, meatloaf, barbecue ribs and chocolate milk. What’s new? Fresh pork, hamburger, chicken and turkey, sauces from scratch, fresh baked bread, salad and fruit bars. Read more at the Washington Examiner:


Sarah Henry July 25, 2010 at 9:45 am

Thanks for this lede, Edible SD. I’ll check it out.


Kris Bordessa May 12, 2010 at 9:57 pm

You know what? I think our food and farming systems in this country are incredibly broken. BUT: The internet and global connections are beginning to make everyone – not just foodies – aware of the issues. And you are contributing to that, so thank you. Change will come!


Sarah Henry May 13, 2010 at 7:47 pm

Love your bright-eyed optimism, Kris. That’s a key component to bringing about change.


Carrie Frazier May 13, 2010 at 10:41 am

Thank you for your blog. I have started a group and facebook page in Eugene, OR called the Eugene Coalition for Better School Food. We are working to incorporate more local food, and improve the quality of the food in our schools. Our district has a contract with Sodexo. Many of our kitchens were reduced to warmers. We have very little infrastructure to create a local alternative to Sodexo (obviously part of their master plan). The Ashland, OR school board responded to community concern and voted to end their contract with Sodexo. Now our director of food service, a Sodexo employee, is doing what he can to address our concerns in Eugene so as not to repeat what happened in Ashland.

Recently, we harvested lettuce at my son’s school and then got the OK to serve it in the salad bar. Sodexo is claiming that they want to expand this garden-to-cafeteria program. Here are links to the stories:

Thanks! Carrie Frazier


Sarah Henry May 13, 2010 at 7:48 pm

Hi Carrie, Nice to see you on the site and thanks for letting us know about what you’ve got cooking — and growing — in the Pacific Northwest.

Best of luck to you in all your school food endeavors in Eugene and keep us posted.


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