Whole grains, fruits, and fresh vegetables are in. Sodas and sodium are out.
With the new school year approaching, many districts are coming up with innovative ways to comply with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act and make nutritious meals appeal to even the pickiest eaters.
“We are very passionate about making sure our students eat healthy so they can perform well,” said Jackie Morgan, food services director for the Milton public schools.
In Somerville, district officials strive to “empower mindful eaters” by teaching children where their food comes from while simultaneously supporting local farmers.
Students in Wayland are going beyond the usual kid staples like mac and cheese and tater tots.
“I’ve tried things I never had before and was surprised because I actually liked them,” said Lucy Grasso, 11, who is heading into sixth grade at Wayland Middle School. Among the newfound foods she’s tried — and loved — at school: rainbow carrots.
“They tasted like normal carrots,” she said with a giggle.
Students in Wayland sporting “Green Thumb” T-shirts tend school gardens, helping to grow the produce that’s served in their lunches and cultivate compost to turn food scraps into a rich organic material that improves the soil.
In Salem, school officials have embraced the farm-to-school initiative and are growing their own produce in a state-of-the-art, climate-controlled freight car.
Somerville has committed to buying a minimum of three boxes of vegetables each week from a local grower. Meanwhile, students are learning through hands-on experience about the life cycle of a plant and trying a variety of vegetables they grow from seed.
“Getting my hands dirty and planting — that was the best!” said Mahdiat Sihat, 8, who is heading into third grade at Winter Hill Community Innovation School in Somerville. She proudly showed off her garden journal, where she recorded the height of her cherry tomato plant (“zero” on day 1) and the weather (64 degrees and cloudy) when the seeds were potted.
“I also liked writing in my journal and drawing pictures, but watering and watching the plants grow was fun, too,” she said.
The goal in most districts is to involve students in food decisions, from growing vegetables to selecting them in the lunch line. One Cornell University study found that if kids grow vegetables, they’re more likely to eat them. Another study noted that the more children are able to select their own food, the more likely they are to consume it.
Taste tests have become common in school cafeterias, encouraging kids to step outside their culinary comfort zone. In Somerville, the kids went crazy for kale chips. In Milton, broccoli salad and roasted carrot sticks earned rave reviews. Recipe contests and cooking competitions also are popular.
“We like to do food demonstrations in classrooms, so we have the chance to talk to kids about what they’re tasting and smelling,” said Lauren Mancini, school nutrition director for the Somerville public schools.
Research has found that healthful diets improve academic performance, classroom behavior, attendance, and cognitive skills, according to the Health and Academic Achievement report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Federal rules mandate no beverages other than 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, milk, or water may be provided in levels below high school. All foods should be trans-fat-free. and grain-based products — including bread, pasta, rice, chips, crackers, and bakery items — must be whole grain.
In addition, no more than 35 percent of calories may come from fat per item and no more than 35 percent of an item’s total weight may come from sugar. Sodium also is limited.
Cornell’s Smarter Lunchroom Movement has inspired districts to adopt small changes to make healthful food choices more appealing. Recycling containers and composting bins also are becoming more common.
“It’s the future, conserving, composting — all of that,” said Mike Silkonis, who grew up on a farm and is now head custodian at Loker Elementary School in Wayland. He sits in the cafeteria during lunch to help the students with recycling and composting. “In my next life, I’m going to be a farmer in Iowa,” he said.
The movement also has prompted discussions about sustainable agriculture, urban farming, and food justice, a topic that delves into the lack of access to nutritious food in some low-income neighborhoods.
In Salem, where 43 percent of students are from economically disadvantaged homes, the district’s food and nutrition department has committed to purchasing greens and herbs grown in a freight container car that’s tucked behind the automotive school on the high school campus. Here, the “farmers” are environmental science students at Salem High and their teacher, Graeme Marcoux.
Deb Jeffers, director of food and nutrition for the Salem schools, thinks the freight farm will reduce the district’s food costs while ensuring that fresh, high-quality produce is available year-round.
“Nobody else has anything like this,” Jeffers said. “I like the thought that they’re going to pick it here, right up the hill from my office, and it’ll be on students’ plates the same day.”
Salem already boasts scratch kitchens, where the food — from tacos and fresh salads to rotisserie chicken and gluten-free pizza — is prepared on-site. As a result, the high school cafeteria offers a sophisticated dining experience, similar to what is typically found on college campuses.
At Milton High School, students help shape the lunch menu by voting on new dishes. Shoilee Banerjee, 16, who will be a junior this fall, said she used to bring lunch a lot but found recently that she loves the food the school offers. Her favorite entree is the tangerine chicken, served with brown rice and stir-fry vegetables.
Her classmate, Devin Surrette-Fahey, 16, is a fan of the food carts that are open at Milton High each morning, offering breakfast items such as whole-grain muffins, yogurt parfait, and granola bars. He often grabs a treat and stashes it in his backpack to quell afternoon hunger pangs.
Several students said the move to healthier meals has made them more aware of proper nutrition.
Ancil Ramkissoon, 16, also a junior at Milton High, said he has applied what he’s learned at school to his dining choices at home.
“I have wraps at home all the time now, with baked or grilled chicken, romaine lettuce, and Caesar dressing,” he said. “My mom keeps them in the fridge for me so I can have one whenever I get hungry.”
Brenda J. Buote may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.