Katherine Elmer-DeWitt is external initiatives manager for the Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC), a public charter school located on Chicago’s Southwest side. AGC and its founder, Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, have received numerous recognitions for their innovation approaches to education, including its dedication to teaching students and their parents about healthy, delicious, and sustainably produced food — which also is reflected in the meals served to the school’s children. AGC is currently raising funds to build a Net Positive Energy campus that will include a major urban agriculture component.
Teens around the country have caused a buzz by tweeting photographs of unappetizing school lunches along with a sarcastic message: #ThanksMichelleObama. This trending hashtag highlights a complex issue in school food.
While students should be applauded for using social media to advocate for positive food choices, this particular viral campaign has unfortunately misdirected, oversimplified, and, in many cases, made a joke out of school nutrition. In the face of a national and global obesity crisis — the disease has a global economic impact on par with armed violence, war, and terrorism, combined — school nutrition is no laughing matter.
It is regrettable that these students, following the complexly sarcastic “Thanks Obama” meme, placed blame for the quality of school lunches on Michelle Obama, who has made wellness a personal cause as first lady of the United States. She is an advocate for programs to address the crucial issues of childhood obesity and school nutrition, through her Let’s Move fitness campaign, her promotion of school and home gardens, and her work — alongside the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — to improve positive food choices in school lunch. By inappropriately attributing blame to the first lady, these students missed an opportunity to launch a social media movement.
Setting aside issues of representation (fluorescent lighting and a styrofoam tray are not exactly appetizing) and differing tastes (while not terribly healthy, those refried beans looked pretty tasty to me), we’d love to reflect for a moment on the efforts of Michelle Obama and the USDA to improve school lunch offerings, and how schools and districts can do a better job of implementing changes to school lunch standards.
What’s been done?
Since 2010, the USDA’s school breakfast and lunch guidelines have undergone regular updates to reflect the latest in youth nutrition research. Recently, in part due to Mrs. Obama’s campaigns, these updates have:
• required school food programs to include more whole grains.
• required school food programs to provide more fresh vegetables and fruits.
• removed a requirement for a meat or meat alternative during breakfast, allowing for more popular, low sodium and whole grain options as cereal, yogurt and oatmeal.
• improved opportunities for meatless offerings.
• reduced overall sodium in meals (salt is often used to make up for a lack of flavor).
• helped schools serve healthier snacks, such as fruits, nuts and granola bars, over the ever-popular cookies and candies.
So why haven’t these new standards improved students’ experiences with school lunch? Well, for starters, implementation of a policy can vary widely. While the lunches featured using the #thanksmichelleobama hashtag may meet guidelines, they may not reflect the spirit of the guidelines.
USDA standards, when integrated in a thoughtful way, result in meals that look, taste and feel good. Secondly, even a thoughtful change can fail in implementation if it is rolled out without explanation and support within the school culture and/or curriculum.
For districts and communities with tight budgets and understaffed schools, the thoughtful integration and introduction of new standards can be an overwhelming task. As many participants in this Twitter conversation have pointed out, funding for education is at the root of this all.
What can be done?
The Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC), where I work, seeks to be a role model that proves health consciousness and nutrition are perfectly compatible with creating tasty, child-friendly meals that students will eat and enjoy.
As a federally subsidized, Title 1 school lunch program serving 100 percent organic, local food, scratch-made by an onsite chef, we have served since 2008 as a pilot for innovations in school food. This work has had a positive impact on more than 600,000 students through modeling what is possible in public school, including producing a School Sustainability Handbook and — alongside FamilyFarmed, Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Botanic Garden — creating the first School Garden Food Safety Manual.
As a Chicago Public Charter school, AGC has some flexibility with our budget that district-operated schools do not have. For only 50 cents extra per student per day, we are able to provide 100 percent organic meals made from scratch, with love, by our in-house Chef Eddie. While we receive — and spend — less per student than an equivalent district-operated school, we have worked to create an increasingly financially efficient model that allows us to prioritize the things that really matter to us, and which are directly tied to positive impacts for our students.
While we’re not perfect, we made great food a priority of our school’s founding and have worked to improve our food program every day since then. This year, we are partnering with Chicago’s Greater Good Studio to pilot food waste interventions and are working on partnerships with Chicago chefs to share their passions for good food.
Ultimately, school food cannot be separated from the school itself. The food has to be good, objectively, but it also has to be attractive to the students. They have to understand what they’re eating and why they need it. We do a tremendous amount of education, with students and parents, about our food and our food policy.
We encourage feedback from students, parents, and staff. Our students conducted a poll in a recent AGC student newspaper about lunch to publicize their preferences. Rather than tweeting about politicians, our students communicated directly with the decision makers in a mature and productive way.
For the record, their favorite school foods are Chef’s Pozole — not too surprising, given that our student body is mostly Hispanic — and Whole-Grain Pizza. Their least favorites are Mac & Trees (a dish that combines macaroni and cheese with vegetables, usually broccoli) and Sloppy Joes. The most requested items were Tamales and Kale Chips (which previously have been on the snack menu.)
Chef Eddie is an AGC parent himself, and takes seriously his role in our community. This winter, he will be teaching a cooking class for students and parents.
We are a community of learners and, at the same time, everyone is a teacher as well. Faculty, staff, parents, and students are asked to model for each other what an excellent relationship with food looks like. We have a food policy that applies to students, staff, and external events.
Everyone is playing by the same rules. Staff are discouraged from even bringing in branded to-go cups, because the students will look up to them and associate that brand with something they admire.
What have we learned?
• Flavor is key and, contrary to popular opinion, can be achieved without sacrificing nutrition. We use a little agave and fruit to sweeten foods, and make everything, including salad dressing and ketchup, from scratch so we can ensure flavor as well as nutritional value.
• We work with the food service company to make sure we have the best ingredients — from organic kale crisps to hearty Manna bread.
• Our dishes are often familiar…and often not. 81 percent of our students come from Hispanic families, so healthy traditional Mexican dishes like veggie pozole are a no-brainer. But we also want to introduce them to international flavors such as French crepes and Greek soup.
• We take our students’ opinions about food very seriously.We make a careful study of what the students like and what they leave on their plate and adjust menus accordingly.
• It can be a challenge to get a child to try something new, and it truly takes a village to raise a child who likes kale crisps. Our goal is to foster a culture of health. Staff members model excellent nutrition by eating with students, consuming healthy snacks, and encouraging wellness outside of school with a faculty wellness fund. Parents participate in food education, both through formal mandatory “Parent University” sessions as well as events such as the “Taste of AGC,” which is like a Good Food fest for our school community.
• We teach what we preach: Our curriculum supports the food program and vice versa. Students understand the food cycle through “farm-to-fork” lessons and through visits to local farms, restaurants, and factories.
• We’re all farmers: our students are responsible for every part of our school garden, from seed to harvest. When children grow kohlrabi, radishes and kale from seed, they cannot wait to taste them.
What can YOU do?
• Take time. If your school doesn’t have the resources, volunteer, either to take on some food tasks yourself or to help them make the time! We ask our parents to volunteer 20 hours a year and we have many who well exceed that, often in the cafeteria. Everyone at AGC works overtime, including our kids, who have 17 percent more instructional time than a CPS school.
• Advocate. We explained to our food service provider that great food was something on which we would not compromise. We also explain to all of our partners the benefits of helping us source local organic food. We share everything we do and open our doors to press, partners, and visitors from other schools.
• Give what you can. Research schools, non-profits, and government agencies that are working to model positive food systems and support them however you can, through donations of time, money, and other resources. To support AGC’s work to pilot and share exemplary school food initiatives, visit agcchicago.org/donate.