Rethinking School Lunches

Issues & Politics

Rethinking School Lunches

LAST JANUARY, FIRST LADY MICHELLE OBAMA and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack unveiled a new set of Federal standards for school meals as part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. The standards went into effect this past September; they raise the nutritional standards for nearly 32 million children who participate in school meal programs nationwide. The new standards range from ensuring that students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day, to getting kids to eat more whole-grain foods to serving smaller portions.

This national focus on school lunches coincides with the movement questioning the serving of pre-packaged, pre-prepared. nutrient-deficient foods fed to school kids nationwide because “that’s what they like and that’s all they’ll eat.” These foods have been successfully pushed aside in many places in favor of fresher, healthier offerings. Additionally, a new focus on nutrition has many parents demanding the food served in school have the best interest of the child in mind, not necessarily just the most cost effective and easiest to mass-produce.

More healthful food, however, is only part of the story of the school lunch of the future. Here we take a look at three very different, innovative programs in the Hudson Valley that are striving to serve the school lunch of the future right now.

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Stealth Nutrition (Poughkeepsie)

The Poughkeepsie City School District serves more than 1,500 breakfasts and 3,500 lunches every day, spread among its seven schools. Since he started in Poughkeepsie in 2007, Director of Food Services Alan Muhlnickel has been doing everything he can to make sure that those 5,000 meals are as healthy as possible.

“We like to call it stealth nutrition,” Muhlnickel says. “Our students are very averse to “healthy food,” but we sneak it in wherever we can—we mix vegetables into the taco meat, we push whole grain breads.” French fries are now available only two days a week rather than five.

Muhlnickel is proud that conscious decisions were made to make fresh fruits and vegetables available to students well before the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act went into effect. “You see the kids, you get to know them, and you soon learn that they don’t get any exposure to these things that we take for granted most of the time, like fresh fruits, fresh vegetables,” he says. “You walk into the store and buy a peach—that’s a dollar sometimes. The low-income area that we’re in, that dollar peach doesn’t go very far. The only place a lot of the kids will see [fresh produce] is in my cafeteria.”

Muhlnickel works with a number of local farms to get fresh produce for his students, but since Poughkeepsie is a public school district, it isn’t always easy to be healthy. “They’ve passed laws in different areas, but there are [other] ways to do it,” he says. “I just have to follow certain guidelines.”

Offering healthful food to the students is only half the battle—they have to eat it, too. To that end, one trick Muhlnickel uses is an open kitchen. He found that when students just could see the food being prepared, they were more likely to order it. The high school offered a freshly-made, Caesar salad with grilled chicken one day, putting it all together on the line, and 200 students (roughly one-third of the kids eating a school lunch that day), chose the salad. “My school district is at least 85 percent free and reduced,” Muhlnickel states, referring to the percentage of students eligible for the National School Lunch Program, which provides low-cost or free lunches to economically disadvantaged students. “For those children to pick salads over burgers is a huge accomplishment.”

Muhlnickel also discovered that cost was keeping some of his students from eating the more healthful offerings. Aside from the 85 percent of the student body participating in the free or reduced-price lunch program, there were still students who couldn’t afford to buy lunch, either because they couldn't afford even the reduced price, or they didn’t otherwise qualify for another program. So, this year Muhlnickel began a new program called Community Eligibility. “We’re feeding everyone [for] free right now,” he says. “Every [student] who walks up gets a free [healthy] meal regardless of anything. And that’s something I’m pretty proud of.”

Community Eligibility means no student in the Poughkeepsie City School District has to go without lunch or breakfast. The early returns on the program are strong, with the district serving an additional 250 breakfasts and 150 lunches each day. “We made the decision based on our children,” he says. “It just made sense for our community.”

Connecting Farms to Schools (Cold Spring)

When Sandy McKelvey moved to the Hudson Valley from Astoria, Queens, four years ago she was already a proponent of fresh, locally procured produce, having either belonged to or run a CSA in New York City for years. Not long after joining her first Hudson Valley CSA, however, one of the farmers introduced her to the farm-to-school movement, and a convert was born.

“It's a program to promote student wellness and engage kids about food so they can learn how to make healthy decisions about what to eat,” she explains. “And we do that through connecting schools with local farms.” She was so passionate with the idea that when she discovered the National Farm to School Network, she created Hudson Valley Farm To School so that when her daughter began kindergarten at Haldane Elementary School, in Cold Spring, McKelvey could get the program into her daughter’s school.

It was a surprisingly hard sell. “The first year, it was all about going to meetings, talking about it and getting to know the school a little better,” she says. She brought the idea to the PTA, which sent her to the Wellness Committee. She created a formal proposal. She set up a table at the school’s annual health fair. Slowly, her persistence began to pay off as she generated interest from parents and students. But she still had to get the school to buy into the concept. “It's not just done overnight,” she says. “You take your baby steps and you try to introduce something that's simple enough for both the food service director and the schools to do something without completely changing their schedules and thinking about how it impacts teachers' lesson plans.”

Finally, she convinced the school to feature a monthly vegetable in the cafeteria. She got recipes from local chefs to allow the staff to present the month’s selection in different ways, but the kids didn’t exactly race to the head of the line for the new vegetable dish. McKelvey knew she had to up the ante or her program wouldn’t continue. What was needed, she decided, was a way to get the kids involved in the process. She squeezed some funding from the local school foundation and brought chefs into seven of the school’s classrooms. “It was unbelievably popular among students, parents, administrators, teachers,” she says. “They all loved it.”

The program, now officially called Chef in the Classroom, has caught fire both at Haldane and now at nearby Garrison Union Free School District. “We've been working with local farms, and also with chefs, to have a program that has two components,” McKelvey says. “One component is the fresh, local produce coming from the farms, but the other component—which is actually the key curriculum element—[is] the cooking classes.”

With Chef in the Classroom, students get involved in every aspect of the process. “When the chefs come in, it's not like a chef does a demo and the kids are watching,” McKelvey explains. “They're completely engaged—the kids make [the food]; the chefs really are just there to guide them and to give them information, like safe knife skills or the importance of measurement. The kids just absolutely love it, and the teachers love it because they see the enthusiasm that the kids have for this—it’s eye-opening for the teachers,” she says. “They see the chefs bringing in some beets and they're thinking, ‘Are kids going to eat this?’ But every single class—everyone tries it and, generally speaking, they not only try it but they love it and ask for seconds. They gave it a name so they can feel like they're taking ownership of it. Then it will be served in the cafeteria one or two weeks later.”

Initially, the class-created items were offered as side dishes for those students who bought hot lunch that day, but in order to have as many try it as possible, a school-wide taste test was initiated. Today, parent volunteers come into the cafeteria to help serve new dishes, and all the students try a sample—on a whiteboard nearby they can rate the dish. “The kids really like that; they want to know how many people liked it and who didn’t like it,” McKelvey says.

We had kids not only liking it but begging for seconds and thirds. And this is beet soup!

Each month, the children in McKelvey’s program happily eat their vegetables. September’s vegetable was kale; the children made a kale-and-potato soup. McKelvey partnered with the Culinary Institute of America in October and the CIA’s student chefs came to Haldane and guided the children through the process of making a butternut squash dish. They made pumpkin bread in November and a beet soup in December.

“It was really surprising how many kids thought this was the best thing on earth,” McKelvey says. “We had kids not only liking it but begging for seconds and thirds. And this is beet soup! I got an email from one of the parents who sent me photos of her son: Without any help from his parents—and completely from memory—he made the soup for his family at home. And not only did he make the soup, but there were these fancy croutons that they made as part of the class, and he made those, as well.”

McKelvey hopes to expand Hudson Valley Farm To School to as many schools as she can. “It's not going to be easy, and it's not going to happen overnight because there are a lot of barriers to working with local farms, especially small farms. Schools have very, very tight budgets and they have to bid for their produce,” she says. “[National] Farm to School is working very hard with the USDA to help small farms and regional farms work with the schools. Slowly, in baby steps, it will change school lunch. It already has.”

Dreaming Big at Storm King (Cornwall)

Moises Ortega, Food Service Director at Storm King School in Cornwall-on-Hudson, a private boarding school serving grades 8–12, started working in the food sector at the age of 14. “I was washing dishes bigger than myself,” he recalls. “Then I slowly began falling in love with the science of cooking.”

When the CIA-trained Ortega took over the Storm King School cafeteria two years ago, he knew right away what he wanted to do. “When I first came in here, when I saw what they were serving and how they served it and how my cooks went about it. I said there's no way we're doing this. I talked it over with my boss and slowly we started to knock it down, one block at a time.”

With the support of the school administration, Ortega eliminated all canned and packaged food in the cafeteria, donating it all to the Food Bank of the Hudson Valley. Then he went to work on the blank canvas of a kitchen in front of him. He enlarged the deli, introduced a panini presser, offered fresh-brewed coffee every day, bought as much local and organic ingredients as possible, started an on-site bakery to supply the school with fresh-baked muffins and pastries, and created a robust salad bar.

He also made sure that as much as possible, everything served in his kitchen is fresh and made from scratch each day. “The fryer was used almost on a daily basis when I got here,” Ortega remembers. “When I first got here we emptied it and we hardly use it. Our fryer currently hasn't been used in over a year.” In an effort to give his customers as many options as possible, he made sure there was always a vegetarian hot dish available. He put out homemade soups. He brought in Tavo teas. He instituted Thursday Night family-style meals where everyone sits around larger tables and passed food around.

And he created the noodle bar.

“Most of our population here at the school is Asian, and I saw that we weren't really providing for them,” Ortega says. “So I came up with the noodle bar concept—you come, pick a noodle, pick a starch, pick a vegetable, pick a meat option. Everything is made to order. I talked to some of the kids and asked what their favorite sauces were, and I went out and got them.” Ortega now spends each lunch period standing at the head of the longest line in the cafeteria, making made-to-order noodle dishes on three burners spread out in front of him.

The end result of all of Ortega’s changes is a cafeteria to be envied. “The food is better, the quality's better,” says Brian Cronin, Head of Communication at Storm King School. “It's fresher. Everybody's happier, and we've noticed that it's costing our department less.”

The more we can support our local farmers and growers, the more we grow as a community.

And because Ortega wanted to create a cafeteria for everybody, he set up a system to serve people with food allergies, so that they, too, can feel safe in his cafeteria. “Any dietary restrictions we take great pride in working with,” he says, noting that the school currently includes students with peanut allergies and seafood allergies, as well as some who need a gluten-free diet. “We have special pans downstairs that we bring up if we think things could become contaminated.”

Another very important aspect to Chef Ortega’s vision is his purveyors. “It's really important [to go local],” he says. “I believe that's our foundation, where the food service is heading. The more we can support our local farmers and growers, the more we grow as a community. I believe in the future it won't be a choice, it will be mandatory to go local.”

Not everything can be found locally, however. But even with the mega-corporations like Sysco, Ortega retains his standards. “I have a special program with Sysco, an agreement I should say,” he explains. “Anything that's processed I must know in advance before I buy it. Any options that I get are all as fresh as possible. Last year we switched to earth-friendly coffee cups, made special [by Sysco] just for me, for the school.”

Some schools might hesitate before trying to change the way a company as large as Sysco works, but Ortega simply refused to be denied. “As soon as I came in, I called Sysco,” he recalls. “Not the sales rep, I called his boss. I had him come over and I explained what I wanted to do. He was very happy to work with me and make all these changes.”

Although Orgeta’s changes may seem like unrealistic goals for those running a public school program, he insists that some of the changes he instigated could be replicated in a larger, public school district. “Schools have more power than meets the eye,” he says, adamant in his belief that even public schools can work with even corporate purveyors to provide fresher, healthier options.

Before Ortega’s arrival, the cafeteria wasn’t exactly the pride of Storm King School. “A lot of the staff wouldn’t eat there,” Cronin admits. But today, hardly any staff member misses a meal, and the students hurry to be first in line when the kitchen opens. Ortega is understandably proud of what he’s been able to create at Storm King School, and he invites anyone to stop by and see what he's done and replicate or adapt any of his ideas at their own school.

He wants every school cafeteria to be as healthy and popular as his. “When I first came here we barely had any students in here,” he says. “Now, we have a line before we open the doors.”

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