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School Lunches: Growing Your Own And Tips For Eating Better

Students at the Kimberton Waldorf School get to help cultivate the food they eat for lunch. (Kimberton Waldorf School)

Students at the Kimberton Waldorf School get to help cultivate the food they eat for lunch. (Kimberton Waldorf School)

It’s one thing for a small, private school to incorporate gardening and healthy eating into its curriculum, but what can larger, poorer urban schools do?

Many say that they don’t have the budget to afford healthier choices, and also say that kids just aren’t interested in changing the way they eat.

The debate over how to feed American school kids became heated last month when Michelle Obama lashed out at a group of House Republicans who pushed to grant waivers — or exceptions — to the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, by letting schools opt out if they said they were losing money.

As lawmakers debate the law requiring that schools provide healthier lunches in order to qualify for federal funding, we take a loot at the Kimberton Waldorf School in rural Kimberton, Pennsylvania. Waldorf schools believe in hands on education, and this one has kids grow their own lunch in a program called “Food for Thought.”

Here & Now’s Robin Young also talks to consultant Kate Adamick, co-founder of Cook for America, who says most schools already have enough money to fund healthy eating initiatives — they just need to learn how to do it. Adamick shares her recommendations on how to bring healthy food into American public schools.

Interview Highlights: Kate Adamick

On debunking the argument that kids don’t like healthy foods

That’s the biggest myth in school food, that the kids won’t eat it. The food and beverage industry loves us as adults to think that the kids won’t eat it. There are numerous studies on this that say a child has to be exposed to a certain type of food ten to twenty times before they’ll eat it. That means that we have to keep trying. We really need to remember there are no cases in recorded history of a child starving to death when there’s a plate of healthy food sitting in front of them.

Tips Adamick has given to schools to save money

“[A district was] portioning salad and food and everything in little plastic cups. When you do that, you’re paying for those little plastic cups … If you put it out for kids to take on their tray, that’s faster, that’s much less labor intensive and you save all of that money, both on the labor time and the plastic cups.”

“The federal government funds school food both with cash and with an allotment of food. You can order it either raw — so I can order raw chicken, or I can send that raw chicken to a processor and have them turn it into chicken nuggets, and chicken fingers, and chicken dinosaurs, which are typically laden with salt, fat and sugar … You pay for that. So take the free chicken in and cook the chicken.”

Guest

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, BYLINE: It's HERE AND NOW. And now we want to check in on the school lunch debate. But first, we start at the Kimberton Waldorf School in Pennsylvania. In a nutshell, they focus on hands-on learning, holding off on technology. So for instance, all the kids kindergarten to senior year learn to knit. And they grow the plants to dye the wool in their garden, which for the last four years, has also provided much of their lunch. The program is called Food for Thought. Listen as garden teacher Celia Martin shows tenth graders the fruits of their labor - potatoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CELIA MARTIN: Now the trick to digging potatoes is not to stab them with the pitchfork. And then you just turn the soil to the next spot.

CLASS: Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 1: There's two of them.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: The kids do almost all of the work. Even in the summertime, we hire some of the students from the high school to come and help in the garden. And we have, as you can see, this big vegetable garden which is 27 rows each 40 feet - more than 40 feet long. And then we have over 60 fruit trees, mostly apples but peaches, pears, plums. We have a big herb harden there. We have medicinal herbs and culinary herbs. We have four hives of honeybees right now. They love it.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 2: There's another one.

YOUNG: Many of these kids have known the inside of a fast food place and they've also had public school lunches. They know how lucky they are.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 3: Everything is like made and then frozen and then given to you like three months later.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 4: Yeah, I do think of it because my friends at public school all complain about the food and like it's all like premade packaged stuff. And we get all the fresh stuff that we grow and it's a lot better for you too.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 5: It's especially fun when you know you're the one who picks the stuff. You're enjoying it.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 6: Here's some more.

MARTIN: Each day there's a different lesson to be had.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 7: Oh my gosh. Like in third grade when we had to do the plowing - remember that? When we had to pull the plow like horses?

MARTIN: Yep.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 7: Oh, my gosh that was...

MARTIN: Hauling mulch is very, very physical. We were hauling mulch one day. and we were sweating and we were like our of breath. And we were just all sitting there kind of panting. And I said to them, have you guys ever even had this big of a workout before in a phys ed class? And they all said, no, we have not. But they love it. It's useful work. They love to see that it's not just, you know, disappearing after this. They know that this is going into their lunch. It's kind of a motivator right now while they're digging these potatoes - gives them a reason to do it. But it's also - it makes them appreciate their lunch later so that on Thursday when they're eating these potatoes, they're going to have more of an appreciation for how good that lunch is, having a connection to your food. It's important, we've lost that.

YOUNG: The potatoes get cleaned and then make their way to head chef Karen Flores' kitchen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: She has no time to talk.

YOUNG: Karen and just a couple of kitchen employees are helped everyday by volunteer parents including, full disclosure, my sister Gail who helped gather this sound. They also gather meat, bread and yogurt from local companies like the neighboring Seven Stars Farm. And as they cut the potatoes for frittatas and omelettes, Karen explains how they cut costs.

KAREN FLORES: Well, perfect example is soup. I think that is really the best bang for your buck because, for example, yesterday we had Italian wedding soup. We made 700 meatballs, OK, from the organic beef from across the street. I also made a veggie pot, salad, lettuce, carrots and cabbage. And you can get several portions of each of those things, so - for five bucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 8: It looks so good.

FLORES: It does.

(LAUGHTER).

YOUNG: The littlest kids eat family-style in their classroom. The older ones eat together in the gym and they eat a lot. Chris McKenzie is one of the students who worked over the summer in the garden.

CHRIS MCKENZIE: We helped work with the apples to make applesauce, cucumbers, we turned those into like pickles and all of that. It's satisfying. It's really satisfying, the idea of knowing that, you know, it's all organic food and it's freshly cooked and the kitchen does a really good job cooking with it. It really feels nice to just come in and know that you can get a really good lunch.

YOUNG: Sounds of lunch at the Kimberton Waldorf School in rural Pennsylvania. Now this is not a wealthy private school, they don't turn away kids who can't afford lunch. The program is in the red, but it's closing the gap. But what about other schools? Michelle Obama took lawmakers to task for pushing to grant exceptions to the law that require schools to make lunches healthier in order to get federal funding. But some schools say they'll lose money serving food that kids won't eat. Kate Adamick disagrees, she's co-founder of Cook for America, a consulting firm that works with schools. And Kate, first of all, what do you say to those schools?

KATE ADAMICK: I say, you know, I understand what your fears are. I know you're worried about there not being enough time. And I know you worry that there's not enough money. And lo and behold, when we find those two precious commodities, suddenly we see school districts that were in the red turn their food service into revenue-generating operations.

YOUNG: Well, so take money first. These lawmakers are telling Michelle Obama, we make money from selling less healthy options. In one case they replaced a salad bar with Doritos.

ADAMICK: Well, they may generate revenue, but revenue is not to be confused with profits. But even if they are generating a profit, we need to talk about the cost - the short-term and long-term effects on their health.

YOUNG: Well, what about getting them to eat? There are people who are saying that the kids are not eating the salads, they're not taking the apple.

ADAMICK: That's the biggest myth in school food - that the kids won't eat it. The food and beverage industry loves us as adults to think that the kids won't eat it. There are numerous studies on this that say that a child has to be exposed to a certain type of food ten to 20 times before they'll eat it. That means that we have to keep trying. I mean, I think we really need to remember that there are no cases in recorded history of a child starving to death while there was a plate of healthy food in front of them. So we need to get past that.

YOUNG: What's the biggest success you've had in terms of turning around the way a school sees and serves lunch?

ADAMICK: I love the school district in Montrose, Colorado. The first time I met the food service director there, she had her arms crossed across her chest and she was not having anything to do with me. And she and I are now the best friends.

They were portioning salad and fruits and things in little plastic cups. When you do that, you pay for those little plastic cups. You're also paying your staff to take all of the time to do that. If you put it out for the kids to take themselves right on their tray, that's much faster, it's much less labor-intensive, and you save all of that money both on the labor time itself and on the plastic cups. She switched to dried beans from canned. You save between six and nine cents a portion.

The federal government funds school food both with cash and with an allotment of food. You can order it either raw - so I can order raw chicken or I can send that raw chicken off to a processor and have them turn it into chicken nuggets and chicken fingers and chicken dinosaurs and all of those things, which are typically laden with salt, fat and sugar - the deadly three. You pay for that, so take the free chicken in and cook the chicken. Similarly, if the school is serving dessert, take a look at that. That's money, that dessert isn't free and that money can be put right back into healthier protein.

YOUNG: What about growing their own food? Again, schools in urban settings -what do they have to think about?

ADAMICK: Every community has its own ordinances usually. Usually the rules about whether food from a garden can be served to kids depends on county ordinances. But sometimes they're on the roof, sometimes it's nothing more than a terrarium or an aqua farm in a classroom. And does that help them eat it in the cafeteria? Yes.

YOUNG: That's Kate Adamick, co-founder of Cook for America, author of "Lunch Money: Serving Healthy Food In A Sick Economy." Kate, thank you very much.

ADAMICK: It's been my pleasure to be here, Robin. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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