Chef Ann Cooper: Why (and How) We Should Stay the Course on Healthier School Food

Earlier this year I wrote a piece for Civil Eats called “State of the Tray” in which I explained how some of the key gains of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) may be rolled back when the Child Nutrition Reauthorization comes before Congress in 2015.

Eat Five Fruit and Vegetables Per DayOne of the most contentious issues under consideration is the current mandate that children take a fruit or vegetable at lunch, a break from past regulations which allowed kids to spurn those healthful foods if they took the requisite total number of meal requirements.  Since the implementation of the new fruit and vegetable rule, districts around the country have been reporting greatly increased food waste as students take the required food and then toss it in the trash.

This food waste may only increase when, starting next year, schools will also have to increase the amount of fruit served at breakfast from 1/2 to one full cup.  In a large urban district like mine, where over 80% of our kids are economically disadvantaged and a universal, in-class breakfast is the norm, that additional food waste and expense for my district is likely to be considerable.

The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the nation’s largest organization of school food professionals, has asked USDA to revert to the old system under which children can pass on fruits and vegetables at lunch.  But the SNA is not alone in advocating for this roll-back.  Numerous conservative politicians and pundits (perhaps seeing a prime opportunity to attack an initiative so closely tied to the Obama administration generally, and the First Lady in particular) have also vocally criticized the new school food rules and are pushing for revisions to (or even a complete gutting of) the HHFKA. (You can read more about those efforts, including new, Republican-introduced legislation, here.)

On a personal level, I abhor food waste as much as anyone.  And, having now worked closely with Houston ISD’s Food Services department for the last four years, I feel only sympathy for school districts trying to balance their budgets while meeting the HHFKA’s healthier school food mandates, all in the face of insufficient funding and negative student reactions to the food.

That’s why I and many others have argued that the HHFKA simply can’t succeed unless it’s bolstered by widespread nutrition education to prime children for the healthier food they’re now encountering in the cafeteria.  But no one makes that case more articulately than Chef Ann Cooper in a new U.S. News & World Report opinion piece.  Cooper, one of the true pioneers in school food reform, writes:

Why would a child choose an apricot over hot Cheetos or a Pop-Tart when he doesn’t understand the consequences of his daily choices? Why would anyone choose salad over nachos if they’ve developed a taste for salt and fat, while fresh greens are a mystery? 

Cooper goes on to describe how, after improving the school food in her district in Boulder, CO, there was a predictable drop-off in student participation. But with consistent, dedicated nutrition education in the Boulder Valley schools, Cooper reports that meal participation in her district is now at a higher level than before the new changes were implemented.  Cooper’s nutrition education isn’t free, however, and she acknowledges that her district must raise funds from third parties to cover the costs.

As I’ve already argued here on The Lunch Tray, it’s incumbent upon Congress to step up and fund similar nutrition education around the country if the HHFKA is to succeed in its goals.  And it’s deeply disheartening, in my opinion, that the SNA — arguably one of the most influential voices on school food issues — is not leading the charge to obtain this funding but is instead essentially throwing in the towel by advocating a return to the old school food rules on fruits and vegetables.

If the SNA won’t take a stand on this issue, the rest of us need to get our voices heard.  I’ll have thoughts on that down the road, but in the meantime, I think this quote in Cooper’s piece puts the issue squarely in perspective:

It’s not fair to expect children to switch from cookies to kale without telling them why it’s important and giving them a chance to get used to it. But it’s also not fair to give up on their ability to make that switch. Let’s give them the education they need to make the right decisions. Let’s make sure all schools institute food literacy as part of the core curriculum; it’s the only way we’ll change our children’s relationship with food, cultivate their palates and save their health.


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  1. says

    Another excellent article Bettina! I agree that kids need to be given the why and how of making healthy food choices! I’m excited to be working on this very thing with Stacy from School Bites :) When we make healthy eating a choice that kids WANT to make there will be less food waste!

  2. says

    I live in Boulder and I am a huge fan of Ann Cooper. My daughter never benefited from her direction at Boulder Valley School’s food services so I saw how dreadful the food used to be. After 3rd grade, she rarely ate school lunch.

    I agree that kids need to be educated about food so they can choose healthful foods. That’s part of the puzzle. But, I often wonder how we expect the kids to change the way their family views food and their eating habits. Really, who buys the food in the house? Not the kids. Kids learn from parents. Parents know very little about healthful eating. Many of them don’t know how to cook further complicating this situation. Are the kids going to turn this reality on its head? I’ll admit that I do adult education in cooking, so I’m biased. I understand that school is a great place to start training those young tastebuds. But, will just teaching the kids bring about the change? Gosh, I sure hope so, but I have my doubts.

  3. says

    Excellent article! I truly believe that healthy food served to children at school is am absolutely critical step that the country has to take to fight obesity. There are so many millions of children who not only eat lunch at school but, even when I was in elementary school (I’m 28 now) we had a breakfast program where lower-income kids would eat breakfast at school too. So that’s two of three meals each day provided by a school, and if those meals are full of fat and cholesterol and low in vitamins and minerals, these children are not going to grow and develop properly and, even worse, it’s setting them up for poor eating habits that will follow them around for the rest of their lives. Because they ate mostly low-quality food as kids, they will probably continue to do so as adults. The cycle has to be broken!

  4. Martha says

    I agree with both comments above and would like to add: As a School Meals director, if you offer only the “best” of choices (and yes that is costly) and make sure that all of your options are nutritional, it can happen. BUT we are seeing tremendous amounts of waste even as we try EVERYTHING to get students to eat not waste. Another wonderful article Bettina.

  5. Maggie says

    It is bit of a “what comes first, the chicken or the egg” situation. Should we continue to force foods to be served and hope that the students will eat them or do we first educate and then, hopefully – if that education is enough to overcome the advertising and all other messages they see outside of school – the students will eat what they know is best when it is offered?

    I’m envisioning that the task of establishing an education component would be very complex, if that were to come to pass, so it is probably a bit more that “just” getting the money. Who is going to do the educating? What do we cut from the school day? What theory of education/eating training do we follow? What cultural and societal norms are “right”? Just a post or so back there was quite a variety of opinion about flavored milk – just one small part of food/eating. How would that dynamic play out in an attempt to determine what & how to teach about foods and eating?

    By any means, I don’t think we give up. But, finding a direction and means to support change for each and every meal program in the country is going to be quite a challenge.

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