Whipping Up Healthier School Lunches

New standards for healthier school lunches from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have whipped schools into a frenzy of innovation to meet them within their budget constraints. According to the USDA, 80% of schools are meeting the new standards already — standards that mean kids will be getting more whole grains, fresh fruits, and vegetables. A very small number (0.1%) have opted out of the new standards because they could not afford fresh produce. By the end of the year, 94% of school districts say they will be meeting the new standards.

Schools have to be resourceful and innovative to meet these standards despite very tight budgets. For example, the Pittsburgh School District cranks out breakfasts and lunches every day in a 62,000-square-foot warehouse that no one would mistake for a kitchen. You might find 200 gallons of vegetarian chili bubbling away in giant steel vat. Workers dressed in white lab coats, gloves, and head gear straight out of a high-tech clean room will never touch or taste what they’re manufacturing.

Locally sourced produce is not really an option for this operation that feeds 11,000 preschool, elementary, and middle school children. Produce comes to the facility already washed and cut. Workers assemble it into meals according to well-defined procedures. The lunch ladies of yore are nowhere to be seen.

But other schools are finding ways to join a growing farm-to-school movement. In Pittsburgh, smaller charter schools have the flexibility to find their own way to do this. Says Kelsey Weisgerber, food service director at the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park:

It’s totally possible to get locally sourced meat in school lunches. It has taken us awhile to figure out how to navigate the system to order food from sources we trust. But it’s important to order food that aligns with our values.

She works closely with community organizations like Slow Food Pittsburgh, Grow Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh Community Kitchens to meet her goals.

Wisconsin has at least 123 farm-to-school programs in various stages of development. Even a large school district like Green Bay — with 21,000 students — is piloting a farm-to-school program in four of its 37 schools this year.

People seem to understand the value of fresh, locally sourced foods in Wisconsin. In a recent poll, 77% of residents expressed a willingness to pay more for locally grown foods in schools. So maybe there’s reason for hope that fresh foods will claim a larger piece of the cafeteria trays from processed foods.

Click here to read more in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, here to read more in USA Today, and here to read more from Time.

Whisk, photograph © ginnerobot / flickr

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