Is school food better than it was five years ago?

BVSD takes part in federal lunch program while going beyond its nutritional standards

Maalikah Hartley

After the implementation of the controversial Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which updated food nutrition standards in public schools for the first time in 30 years, Boulderganic decided to travel to Douglass Elementary School to see how the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) is faring with its school lunch.

While taking part in the federal program, BVSD, compared to the rest of the nation, could be playing a whole different ball game thanks to their Food Services Director Ann Cooper, a/k/a “The Renegade Chef,” who founded the Chef Ann Foundation.

The national Chef Ann Foundation’s mission is to progress school cafeterias from serving highly processed, unhealthy food to serving fresh, scratch-cooked meals.

“We’re much better. We serve hormone and antibiotic-free beef and chicken, organic milk; we have salad bars in every school, stuff like that. Everything is cooked from scratch,” Chef Ann says.

It’s a late August morning, just at the start of the school year, and on today’s menu at Douglass Elementary the kids are given a choice between natural pepperoni pizza or a natural meatball sub. The next station is a fruit and salad bar containing spring mix (which is organic), black and cannellini beans, grape tomatoes, a quinoa mixture, watermelon and cantaloupe. For drinks there is Horizon Organic 1% Low Fat Milk, rBGH-free skim milk from Meadow Gold or water.

According to federal regulations, the five required foods to be served are a meat or meat alternate (the cheese on the pizza today), a grain (being the meatball roll or crust today), a fruit, a vegetable and fluid milk.

“They don’t have to take all five meal components; they have to take at least three. One of which must be a fruit or vegetable. That is a new USDA regulation,” says Deb Trevor, BVSD food services manager and dietician. “Which is great — we love that they are required to take a fruit or a vegetable because that’s what we’re all about is the fruits and vegetables here.” Trevor is moving around the lunchroom enthusiastically checking in with kitchen staff and talking with kids about their fruit and vegetable intake.

However, a study published in Public Health Reports, conducted by researcher Sarah Amin from the University of Vermont, came out this August showing that students are actually wasting 56 percent of their required fruits and vegetables and that consumption is actually down 13 percent after the federal regulation went into place.

“It’s already been debunked,” Chef Ann says. “I can’t say what’s happening in every school. For us we see fruit and vegetable intake go up and that’s because we have such a strong educational component.”

Every month the BVSD schools have a “Harvest of the Month” where local farm produce is served a few times a month. In August it was Colorado peaches and local squash, and for September it is local tomatoes and corn. According to Trevor, the fruits and vegetables are procured from local farms when possible as they fluctuate with the season. The school’s produce is also procured from Freshpack Produce in Denver. As far as meat, BVSD sources from Anderson Boneless Beef Company in Denver (where today’s meatballs are from) and Boulder Natural Meats, among other local farms, which can all be found on the website

While Trevor says between 30 and  40 percent of all the food is locally sourced, when it has to travel further and from other food companies, she makes sure that it passes a taste test, has a clean label and has been minimally processed.

“There’s no high fructose corn syrup, there’s no trans fats, there’s no preservatives, there’s no additives, there’s no color,” Trevor says. “So for example we get our [pizza] crust from a company in Texas called Alpha Foods. They’re probably a mediumsize company, but their label is clean.”

Using the acquired raw ingredients, entrees are cooked from scratch in three different school production kitchens in Boulder County, chilled, packed and shipped out the same day to schools for re-heating the following day. Around 3,000 to 4,000 meals are made each day, according to Trevor.

“So these meatballs were cooked off at the production kitchen, packed in sauce yesterday — well, Friday morning — then my drivers picked them up, delivered them Friday afternoon, and then they were heated and served today (Monday),” Trevor explains. “So it really means that everybody’s got to be on their game.”

This is in stark contrast to how many of the schools involved in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) are getting their food. According to a recent study by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, titled Who’s Making Money from Overweight Kids?, while the NSLP encourages fruit and vegetable consumption, a handful of big food corporations such as Tyson Food Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Corporation and Cherry Meat Packers Inc. are dominating business with the USDA. The companies serve highly processed meat and dairy products in schools while labeling them as nutritious and dominate advertisements in the School Nutrition Association’s School Nutrition magazine.

Trevor says schools can spend funds known as commodity entitlement dollars, which are provided through the USDA on “brown box” items (such as burger patties and frozen corn), processing (for example sending a raw, whole chicken to a factory to be processed into nuggets) or to purchase fresh produce through the Department of Defense (DOD) Fresh program.

“We choose to allocate part of our commodity entitlement dollars to DOD, which allows us to purchase domestic fresh produce,” Trevor says. “We send out bids every year on specific ingredients in order to purchase local, quality ingredients for our school breakfast and lunch. Examples of some items we went to bid for this summer include bulk ground beef, beef patties, raw fresh bone in chicken, tamales, bagels, tortillas.”

Newer meals on the menu for the 2015-16 school year include kashmiri rice with sweet chili tofu, baked chicken strips with biscuit, Thai chicken curry bowl, cheese calzone and eggplant parmesan among many others.

All BVSD school meals, along with vegetarian and gluten-free options, are posted daily on the website. Also found on the website are BVSD nutrition education programs like “Rainbow Days,” where students are encouraged to use colors of the rainbow in making their salad, and the second annual “BVSD Harvest Festival,” which introduces students to their local farmers and hosts garden demos.

Nutritional information is also readily available on the website for each menu item including serving size, portion, calories, carbs, total fat, protein and fiber. Sugar, however, is not listed.

Without more federal funding, it is hard to see a menu that can be fully organic and pesticide-free, Chef Ann says. And while BVSD is going beyond what the USDA says is “nutritional,” there is still more work to be done in achieving better nutrition and it has to start in the classroom, she says.

“I would like to see food literacy as part of the core curriculum in every state in the country.”


What does the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Bill do?

• Gives USDA the authority to set nutritional standards for all foods regularly sold in schools during the school day.

• Provides additional funding to schools that meet updated nutritional standards for federally-subsidized lunches.

• Helps communities establish local farm-to-school networks, create school gardens and ensures that more local foods are used in the school setting.

• Builds on USDA work to improve nutritional quality of commodity foods that schools receive from USDA and use in their breakfast and lunch programs.

• Expands access to drinking water in schools, particularly during meal times.




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