The menu is absent of sloppy Joes, pizza, french fries, chicken nuggets, mystery meat and other school-lunch mainstays. Only cardboard cartons of milk are here to remind me that, yes, I am standing in a room full of middle-school-age girls eating their school-provided lunch.
And, from all appearances, they’re loving every bite.
It’s Asian Day in Laurel School’s bright, modern dining hall in Shaker Heights, with a featured entree of teriyaki chicken breast and stir-fried tofu served on jasmine rice with fresh steamed green beans.
The girls can opt out of the hot entrée and make a sandwich with the toppings of their choice on whole-grain breads or hit the salad bar, where the standard fixings are accompanied by edamame, marinated mushrooms and tomato bisque. Threre’s also reduced-fat milk or water to wash it all down. All this is served in an environment more akin to a casual bistro than a school cafeteria.
Welcome to the new incarnation of school lunches, where whole grains have replaced whole milk, fresh fruits and vegetables make a daily appearance, and deep fryers are headed the way of the icebox.
In schools throughout Northeast Ohio, at grade levels from kindergarten through college, cafeteria cuisine is making the move from frozen and prepared to fresh and healthful, largely in reaction to the childhood obesity epidemic and emerging research on the role diet plays in kids’ behavior and academic performance.
Nearly 20 percent of today’s 6- to 11-year-olds and 17 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recent research conducted at Johns Hopkins University predicts a continuation of current trends could lead to 75 percent of Americans being obese or overweight by 2015.
But healthful school lunches aren’t just a perk of elite private schools such as Laurel. The federal Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act required all schools that accept federal school lunch funding to establish school wellness policies by 2006. The policies are supposed to spell out “goals for nutrition education, physical activity and other school-based activities” as well as nutrition guidelines for all food available on each school campus. The goal is to promote student health and reduce childhood obesity.
This new law marks the processed school lunches of yore for rapid extinction in all public schools, at least on paper.
“Schools have to have a wellness policy and a committee [to aid in the policy’s development], but you can do very little and still meet the wellness mandate,” says Denise Tabar, a registered dietician and director of food services at Olmsted Falls City Schools. “There has to be initiative by someone, someone in the district who wants to see things changed.”
Tabar has been one of Northeast Ohio’s more progressive warriors for school lunch change, removing all of Olmsted Falls’ deep fryers, switching to whole grains, eliminating many ingredients high in fat and sugar, and replacing all beverage choices with milk, water, 100 percent juice and Gatorade in cafeterias and vending machines.
She’s the nutrition chairperson for the School Nutrition Association of Ohio. Two years ago, under Tabar’s watch, Olmsted Falls snagged the Stellar Award for Best Nutrition Practices from the Ohio Department of Education.
Not that any of that impresses Hunter Hillebrand and Scott Ahern, eighth-grade athletes at Olmsted Falls Middle School.
“I feel mad,” says Hillebrand when asked about the changes. “I don’t like that I can’t get pizza every day.” When not at school, Hillebrand and Ahern like to eat out at the mall, choosing eateries such as Sakkio Japan or Subway.
“But Subway’s healthy!” interjects Ahern. How does he know? “Because of that skinny guy on the commercial,” he says. “Plus it says so on the napkin.”
As part of his ongoing efforts to make the all-boys’ school’s menu more healthful, Pietravoia invested in a new combi oven that promised to simulate the taste of fried food with all the health benefits of baked. But the first time he prepared the students’ beloved chicken patties in it, he had a near revolt on his hands. And with an open campus situated near numerous fast food restaurants, Pietravoia can’t afford to turn off his customers.
“If we can make a product that’s healthy and tastes good, then they’re going to buy it,” he says. “But if we take away their hamburgers and pizza, they would either rebel or they’d go across the street to Wendy’s or the hot dog stand outside.”
That’s why Pietravoia spends his free time hanging out in mall food courts watching what selections teenage boys make and studying the way those meals are packaged. Along with executive chef Marianna Burgess, formerly of the Ritz-Carlton, Pietravoia creates knockoffs of Chipotle burritos, Chick-fil-A chicken strips and McDonald’s cheeseburgers, substituting more healthful and fresher ingredients whenever possible.
But Pietravoia’s efforts to conquer his fast food competition typifies one of the most significant challenges to the transformation of school lunches: If students have the choice, will they choose the healthful option?
“Schools that depend on cash, they have to sell,” says Ronald Linton, a district manager with Sage Dining Services, which manages the food service program at Laurel School and other private schools nationwide. “So they tend to sell items they know they’re going to make money on — pizza, french fries, burgers, soda. The schools want the healthy options, but it’s hard to get the students to choose those healthy options in that environment.”
Laurel’s healthy menu has succeeded in part because parents pay an upfront fee ranging from $775 to $900 to cover the year’s meals, and packing is strongly discouraged.
“[This approach] takes that selling and marketing part out of it and makes it just about the food,” says Linda Hurley, Laurel’s chief financial officer, who oversees the school’s food services.
But in many schools — particularly public schools — it’s not just about the food. A 2006 survey conducted by the CDC found that nearly two-thirds of school districts received a percentage of their soft drink sales and one-third got incentives for reaching soft drink sales goals. More than half sell soda, candy or other high-fat foods at school as part of fundraising efforts.
In 2007, the School Nutrition Association surveyed its members to determine how the wellness mandate was affecting their districts, finding that 78 percent were experiencing higher food service costs, often with accompanying decreases in revenue, particularly in vending and a la carte sales. Higher food costs and student acceptance topped SNA members’ lists of the biggest challenges to wellness-policy implementation.
“It is a revenue stream for schools,” says Susan Wooley, executive director of the Kent-based American School Health Association. “It comes down to trying to support the school programs in a decreasing tax base.”
Olmsted Falls’ Tabar says she’s seen no impact on sales from her health-conscious changes, but she’s waiting to see what the federal government may do next to encourage school nutrition.
“It’s going to be hard for them to tell districts to do something without tying money to it,” she says.
From the distance of higher education, David Jensen and Andrea Spandonis watch the school lunch debate unfold at the primary- and secondary-school level. In charge of campus dining for Baldwin-Wallace College and Kent State University, respectively, Jensen and Spandonis say they’re keeping a close eye on how high schools are delivering school lunches to be prepared for the expectations of incoming freshmen.
“It used to be easier to identify what’s healthy,” says Spandonis. “Now I have to ask the question of our students: How do you define healthy?”
At these institutions, the traditional all-you-can-eat-in-one-sitting meal-plan system — the biggest factor in the typical “freshman 15” weight gain, says Jensen — is a thing of the past. Rather, Baldwin-Wallace and Kent State are part of a growing number of colleges and universities using (or at least moving toward) a la carte, debit-system plans that allow students to pick and choose their ingredients and control their portion sizes.
“We offer lots of variety, and then we watch the students and see where they go,” says Jensen. “You’ll notice that there’s really no one in the hamburger line.”
Since he began revamping Baldwin-Wallace’s menu three years ago to include more fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and a bistro just for vegetarians and vegans, Jensen says he’s reduced by about half the amount of hamburgers, french fries and other high-fat foods he uses.
While B-W students stand in lines to select vegetables for stir-fry or ingredients for made-to-order pasta, the burger station stands lonely and often unoccupied.
In 2005, the school removed soda. The next year, it began moving toward whole grains, lower-fat and lower-sugar ingredients, and more fresh fruits and vegetables.
The shift has changed how Wyman approaches food outside the cafeteria too. “I’m accustomed to this food. I don’t even like fast food and that stuff,” she says. “Friends who are new at the school tell me how much better our lunches are than what they used to have, like having pizza that’s all sweaty and gross.”
John Farber, Old Trail’s head of school, says he’s experienced very little grumbling from his coed, toddler-to-eighth-grade students about the more healthful menu. But the parents have been another story.
“The mistake we made was we told parents what ingredients we were using, and they went ballistic, because they said, ‘My kids don’t like that,’ ” Farber says. “In my eight years here, we were getting the most push back from parents on this issue.”
So now, Farber and executive chef Audra Arnold stick to basic, commonly understood menu descriptions and avoid too much detail about ingredients and methods of preparation. Resistance has subsided, and sales have rebounded.
“Kids will drive a change in attitude and routine in the home,” predicts Farber. “That’s why it’s so important that we do this.”
Old Trail School attempts to serve as much local and organic food as possible, but cost and availability often limit the choices. So, blessed with a campus in the Cuyahoga Valley, Farber is planning a school-managed organic farm, which he hopes to open by 2009.
While starting a farm may not be feasible for most public or private schools, Farber says he sees no reason why every school can’t make the kind of healthful changes Old Trail and others have made.
“Some of it’s just laziness — sometimes people just don’t want to change their habits. To change requires some effort,” says Farber. “It doesn’t have to add a lot of cost, and it’s the right thing to do.”
“I ate lunch there every day, and I hated it. It was all greasy,” she says.
Mavec and Toth share some of their favorite menu items — such as the Bread Bar and Laurel Bananas — from the 12 years they’ve each spent at Laurel.
“I’ve had students come back and tell me, ‘We had no idea how good we had it,’ ” says Laurel’s Hurley. “ ‘We might have complained at the time, but we had no idea.’ ”