This guest post is by Chef Greg Silverman, Managing Director of Wellness in the Schools.
Many chefs, myself included, have spent years using salt, sugar, and fat to add flavor to foods in our restaurants and food service operations.
As the Managing Director of Wellness in the Schools (WITS), an organization inspiring healthy eating, environmental awareness and fitness as a way of life for kids in public schools, I am happy to be part of the transition to healthy, affordable, and delicious foods in our school cafeterias from coast to coast.
It’s easy for folks to argue about how best to feed kids, but it’s important to look at the scale of the effort already in place to serve our children. In 2014, more than 30.5 million children participated in the National School Lunch Program. The New York City Department of Education is the largest public school system in the United States, serving approximately 1.1 million students in more than 1,700 schools. Serving healthy, affordable, and delicious food is no easy task when trying to serve millions of meals a day.
Since the passing of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010 and the updated national school nutrition standards, one of the biggest adjustments we see in cafeterias is the effort of school food service staff to serve healthier food to kids. Setting higher standards for vegetable and fruit consumption has unleashed many new products and meal options for kids. At the same time, bringing sodium levels down in schools has been seen by some as controversial. Opponents cite decreased consumption of school meals and increased cost. However, the facts prove otherwise. Ninety-seven percent of schools are now successfully meeting the updated nutrition standards, and many schools have seen an increase in consumption and decrease in cost. These successes take time and support, and one of the best things we can do is to find the 3% that may be facing some challenges and help them cross the finish line as well.
In 75 public schools throughout New York City (NYC), WITS is helping the Office of School Food implement the alternative menu. For more than 40,000 kids each day, this menu meets the standards using products and recipes with more reasonable levels of sodium. WITS chefs help NYC schools implement this menu with a bit of fresh herbs, some spice, and lots of hands-on cooking and engagement with staff, students, and the community. As Cecilia Kaplinsky, Principal at PS 216 in Brooklyn said of WITS, “You have introduced our students to food that they would not have had the opportunity to eat and enjoy. You are changing lives; one at a time, day by day.”
When it comes to helping schools lower sodium as part of a healthy menu for kids, there are many avenues to make change.
Here are some of the favorites of our WITS Chefs:
- Tastings: In-person, face-to-face engagement with the students is one of WITS’ go-to methods to get children to try new menu items and salad bar ingredients. Our chefs know that to make tastings work best, they need to be simple to organize, fun for the kids, and supported by the staff. Wellness in the Schools Chef Marion Williams sets up fun cafeteria-based tastings of new healthy, affordable, and delicious cafeteria recipes.
- Cooking: Supporting food service staff with recipe and culinary skills development makes a world of difference for increasing consumption. Executive Chef Bill Telepan created a vegetarian chili recipe that WITS teaches kids to cook in our WITS Bean Lab and is also on the NYC Alternative school menu. The recipe not only adds a bit of spice to a school lunch tray, but is easy to make and cost effective for families and food service operators alike.
- Engaging the whole school community: Changing menus means changing palates of everyone involved in school food. With family fitness events, salad tastings, cooking classes and wellness committee meetings, PS 145/West Prep Academy in Manhattan helped bring the entire school community together. Principal Washington has been a true wellness champion, engaging the entire school from teachers to students to administrative staff, as well as local communities, in the fight to bring healthy, affordable and delicious food to his school.
In the end, the recipe for implementing new sodium standards is a healthy one with a bit of spice, some tasty flavors, and lots of folks stirring the pot. With a hands-on approach to adding healthy flavors coupled with lots of fun interactive approaches to learning, WITS has come up with a winning recipe for supporting school meals standards implementation.
Please share this post with your friends and let us know your tips and tactics for helping to serve healthier, affordable, and delicious foods to kids in schools!
For more information from the American Heart Association about school meals, visit www.heart.org/schoolmeals.
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