By Elizabeth Winslow
Photography by Andy Sams
Created in 1946, the National School Lunch Act was conceived as an ingenious way to make use of agricultural surplus, keep crop prices steady and supplement the nutrition of America’s future—its children—at the same time. This supposed solution hides a darker conflict, however, now that we live in a world where health and big agriculture are often at odds with each other. The program’s original goal was to provide healthy meals for children, while at the same time subsidizing agribusiness. But the industry now produces more corn-dependent foods (milk, beef, sweeteners, fillers, etc.) than the fresh fruits and vegetables needed for a truly balanced and healthy diet.
The result is a predominance of those corn-dependent foods being served in school lunches. Since the program began, more than 219 billion lunches have been served, and child nutrition and local food advocates, parents, educators and even schoolchildren are growing ever more concerned about what winds up on those lunch trays. In light of the disturbing trend, several local lunchroom heroes have been working hard to change the way we feed our children.
The cafeteria at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders buzzes with activity just before lunch. The school’s chef, Elvir Hadzovic, puts the finishing touches on roasted sweet potatoes, lean beef enchiladas, Mexicali squash, tortilla soup and hummus with crunchy, fresh vegetables. “The girls here are very into knowing where their food comes from,” Hadzovic says, and credits Austin Independent School District (AISD) Head Chef Steven Burke for making it easy to offer menus featuring fresh, local produce and lean meats.
Burke is just beginning his sixth school year with AISD, and is here at the Ann Richards School to work on fall recipes with the kitchen staff. “When I was hired by AISD, none of us was sure what I was going to be doing,” he says with an affable smile.
It didn’t take long for the district to realize what an asset Burke would prove to be. Passionately committed to high-quality, healthy food, he—under the direction of June Hayman, the district’s head nutritionist—now heads up all recipe development, does outreach and PR, conducts culinary demos for district staff, tests every food product the district bids on, acts as a general problem solver to the operations of each individual kitchen in the district and acts as the point person for the Farm to School Program, a partnership between AISD and the Sustainable Food Center (SFC).
The Farm to School Program connects farmers with school kitchen managers, and provides support so that schools can serve more local foods to students. Currently, the Farm to School Program is in place at 12 AISD schools and one charter school,
but SFC intends to expand the program across the district within three to five years. The Ann Richards School is a Farm to School campus, and today’s menu features tomatoes from Alpine, golden and green zucchini from Fredericksburg, Fuji apples from Idalou and Kieffer pears from Mexia. Andrew Smiley—who runs SFC’s Farm to School program—and Burke work together to create “a really smooth process,” Hadzovic says. “Chef Burke creates recipes for the local produce and everything is really fresh. I call in an order and the food is here the next day.”
Burke says the success of the Farm to School Program, and the healthier food AISD school children are seeing every day, is “a team effort. It takes all of us working together—the nutrition department, school administrators, teachers, parents and all the cafeteria staff—to rewire kids’ palates and get them to eat healthy.”
The University of Texas Elementary School’s Executive Director Melissa Chavez understands the importance of teamwork when it comes to child nutrition and wellness. Through the school’s Healthy Families Initiative, she has leveraged the skills and commitment of health and physical education instructors Brian Dauenhauer and Bob Knipe and seasoned chef and child-nutrition advocate Toni Tipton-Martin to help promote health and wellness among the school’s student population. Together, they run WellNest, an integrated program that reinforces the values of the Healthy Families Initiative—like the importance of physical activity and healthy food choices. Dauenhauer and Knipe oversee the physical education aspects of the program, while Tipton-Martin, a food and nutrition consultant, oversees the cooking and gardening components.
Students receive both physical education and comprehensive health education instruction each week. In these courses, they gain the knowledge and skills that will allow them to be physically active and healthy for a lifetime. A recent highlight of the progress of these programs: the percentage of overweight third through fifth graders was reduced to less than 50 percent for the first time since the program began.
“It has been such a blessing to see the tremendous impact that collaboration can have on the community,” Tipton-Martin says. “In the short time that we have been growing, cooking and eating together, the children have made awesome progress. They have been surprised to discover how much they like new foods after just one small bite. As just one example, many of them now prefer fresh spinach over iceberg lettuce. We also are hearing from parents who want to attend classes of their own.”
Family and whole-community wellness are a priority at KIPP Austin College Prep school, as well. Melissa Laurel, the wellness coordinator at KIPP, had just graduated from culinary school when she learned about the Edible Schoolyard—the one-acre garden and kitchen classroom in Berkeley, California, which is seen as a pioneer in integrated, comprehensive gardening, cooking and nutrition programs and a model and inspiration for countless programs across the country. “That was the moment when the trajectory of my whole career changed,” she says.
Laurel took a job at KIPP in 2006 as the child nutrition manager, overseeing the outsourced lunch program and working with the catering company to develop healthy menus. She also understood that, in order to effect lasting change, her outreach efforts would need to include the school’s whole community. “Our superintendant was a real health proponent,” Laurel explains. “From the beginning, he connected success in the classroom with overall fitness and health.”
Laurel went from working with the larger catering company to working with a private caterer, to finally connecting with Kirsten Eadie, the former catering director at Whole Foods Market. “We had a vision for expanding our nutrition and wellness programs beyond the cafeteria and integrating them into the classrooms,” Laurel says. “Kirsten opened the door to this possibility. She is as crazy-passionate about food as I am. Today’s lunch was pulled-pork tacos with queso fresco, chili-lime cucumber salad, peaches, bananas and milk. We eat really well at KIPP now that Kirsten’s here. She works so hard to find the best ingredients and create delicious meals while staying in budget.”
Another facet of Laurel’s wellness goals was the creation of a series of nutrition classes for parents. She sees this extended “edible education” as a social-justice issue that reaches from the cafeteria and the classroom into the homes of families and out into the larger community. “What are our values? What do we believe about feeding kids in schools?” Laurel asks. “We believe in real food. We believe what we feed our kids communicates that we care about them. All families deserve access to healthy foods.”
Our local lunchroom heroes don’t have many resources to work with. Schools receive reimbursement from the USDA of $2.72 for each free lunch, $2.32 for reduced-price lunches and $0.26 for paid lunches. That’s not a lot of money. Instead, they rely on the resources of commitment, perseverance, hard work and passion about our community’s children. Laurel speaks for all these heroes when she says, “It doesn’t matter what you’ve been allocated, or what should be happening. If your kids aren’t getting what they need, you find a way to make it happen.”