I’m proud to work at a charter school with a scratch kitchen where, for the last two years, our lunches have been made with local organic produce. Around seventy percent of our students eat in the cafeteria everyday.
When our Village School Kitchen first started two years ago we were featured on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution blog. This year one of the self-dubbed “Healthy Lunch Ladies” approached me asking for input on creating a few fully vegan lunch options to roll into the already mostly vegetarian (the school serves a meat option one time per week) lunch lineup.
School lunches are pretty tricky to organize. Over fifty-three percent of the students at our school qualify for free lunches and the school relies on a subsidy from the government to cover the cost of the food. They get about $3.00 per lunch from the government as a subsidy. Non-subsidized lunches bring in $3.40. The requirements for school lunches are stringent.
To meet USDA requirements, the average school meal, analyzed weekly, must:
Contain no more than 30 percent of calories from fat
Contain no more than 10 percent of calories from saturated fat
Provide one-third of the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs) for calories, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, and calcium (from Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine)
I asked Toña Aguilar, one of our healthy lunch ladies, a few questions about meeting nutrition requirements and while serving healthy lunches.
Q: What are the requirements for protein, fiber, fat, whole grains, veggies, etc, for an average lunch?
A: Requirements are divided into the following categories: grain, meat or meat alternative, fruit, vegetable, and milk. Grains must be at least 50% whole. Trans fats are now banned, saturated fat and sodium must fall under a certain amount per week. Grain and meat/ meat alternatives must equal one oz equivalent per day with minimums (for the grades we serve) at 8/9 per week. When the new requirements took effect there were maximums on the number of servings per week as well as caloric maximums but there were so many (well publicized) complaints that they lifted the maximums. Schools/districts participating in the National School Lunch Program must offer fruits and vegetables every day and students must take 1/2 cup fruit and/or vegetables, along with two other components to qualify for a reimbursable meal. We are an “offer versus serve” program; many elementary schools across the nation are still “serve” programs, where the child simply gets a tray pre-portioned.
Q: What is your biggest challenge in creating healthy lunches?
A: Having enough helping hands to create these meals from scratch and then clean up every day. It is quite an undertaking to accomplish what we do day after day and stay positive and healthy and sane.
Q: Why do you want to add in more vegan lunches?
A: Organic and local are priorities for us. Organic meat and dairy are expensive! Vegan meals tend to be more affordable. They also appeal to a wide range of customers. They encourage creativity on the kitchen’s part. The creation of vegan meals has less of an impact on natural resources. We are committed to using as much local and organic meat and dairy as we can, but they still come in plastic!Unfortunately many great sources of plant based protein do not fall within the meat/meat alternative category. Tofu was recently added, but tempeh and and quinoa don’t count at all. Students get tired of beans if we serve them day after day.
Q: What is something important you think people should know about what you do?
A: Nourishing children with nutritious, wholesome food made with love is essential to their education. You can’t send a child to school without breakfast, or feed them fries and soda pop for lunch and expect them to engage in a meaningful way. Their bodies need to be nourished first and then their minds and hearts.
We love what we do and we have fun doing it. The second graders harvested kale and collards from the school garden last week. They were so proud of what they grew and presented it to me with giant grins on their faces. One little boy told me he didn’t like to eat greens but he couldn’t wait for us to serve them so he could try them again.
The Village School Kitchen is an inspirational model for the future of school lunch programs. Our kitchen shows that healthy lunches can meet nutritional guidelines AND be economical. Further, vegan lunches are even more likely to be successful in meeting these goals, all while reducing the negative impact on the environment. Vegan lunches are a win-win.
The old lunch program, which was nearly identical to the food from my own middle school, was a sore spot for the students. The food wasn’t prepared from scratch. It arrived well preserved–frozen or canned or hermetically sealed in plastic. It only needed to be opened and heated before serving. It’s the same now for other schools, just a few blocks away. I looked at the nutrition facts and ingredient information page for our district schools. The page was under construction and listed only a few items. I clicked on the baked potato and was surprised to see that it had more than fifteen ingredients, including Calcium Disodium EDTA (which is made with formaldehyde) and artificial flavorings.
None of this escaped the understanding of the our past students. They knew the food was not healthy. They knew they were getting the short end of the stick. We talked about it occasionally in class meetings. They felt uncared for. They asked for better. It took years before our administration was able to answer their request, not for lack of trying.