THE BLOG
09/23/2013 04:22 pm ET | Updated Nov 23, 2013

What's the Real School Lunch News? 31+ Million American Children Get More Vegetables Every Day

What's really sad about the recent article on the state of U.S. school lunch from the Fed Up campaign is that is so-five-years-ago. Using out-of-date statistics, misleading photos, and images that were not even from high schools, this campaign fails to expose the real truth about school lunch today -- that it is awesome and kids are eating it up!

Personally, I'm fed up with reports on school lunch that ignore the real revolution in cafeterias. It's as if these folks has never heard about the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, the six states where nearly 100 percent of districts already met the new meal standards, and the hundreds of school culinary boot camps -- like one this fall by my friend Garrett Berdan, chef and Registered Dietitian (RD), for the McMinnville, Oregon, Public Schools.

Where have these school lunch critics been? Clearly not dining in the districts that are featuring produce from schools gardens -- and school farms. That's right: Denver (CO) Public Schools is one of several districts with real farms on and off school property. Then, there are initiatives in every state connecting local farmers and ranchers to schools, including farm-to-school, boat-to-school (in AK and OR), and Montana's recent beef-to-school campaign with its own video.

What's really happening in school lunch is that the nearly 32 million students who eat it daily are getting an incredible variety of often local, increasingly organic produce, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy products. According to the savvy school nutrition directors who observe their teen customers closely, they are eating it all up!

Here's a taste of what's really happening with teens and school lunch in five Western districts of all sizes and demographics. It's our first-in-a-series tour from coast-to-coast showcasing School Meals That Rock -- today, with a special focus on teens and veggies. A recent survey noted that American teens are eating more vegetables -- and, from the looks of it, school lunch is a delicious part of this trend.

In suburban Lake Stevens, Washington, Schools, just west of the Seattle, Calavero Mid-High piloted a "Build Your Own Salad Lunch" last spring and they now serve 65+ a day. They are expanding this concept to all middle/high schools in October: Students order a custom salad built from lean diced meats, shredded cheeses or seeds for protein, croutons or whole wheat bread-sticks for grain, and a colorful selection of fresh veggies (often local) and dried fruits. Mollie Langum, Nutrition Supervisor, says: "Students will select healthy food, when you offer them fresh choices and allow them to personalize their meal, exactly how they want it."

Down I-5, in Eugene, Oregon, Bethel School District, has developed a very impressive Harvest-of-the-Month program. Willamette Valley apples, pears, melons, carrots, bok choy, greens and much more show up on Bethel menus, in sandwiches and throughout variety bars (at least nine different vegetable choices daily at all grade levels). Jennie Kolpak, RD, Nutrition Supervisor says: "By providing a wide variety of vegetables, we can find at least one that is loved, liked or tolerated by every student. I frequently see teens select a lot of one vegetable, for example, cherry tomatoes, carrots or cucumbers."

In the Solvang, California, Viking Café, Chef Bethany Markee leads a real school food revolution, where they offer a made-from-scratch hot lunch along with grab-n-go options (entrée salads, wrap sandwiches or vegetarian cold items). "The middle schoolers love this, since they do not have to wait in line and can socialize while eating a healthy school lunch," says Markee. Thanks to a partnership with Santa Ynez Valley Fruit and Vegetable Rescue, the Viking Café is able to regularly serve fresh, organic produce and thanks to a new school herb garden, the seasonings will soon be very local as well.

Across the mountains in Provo, Utah, Schools, Jenilee McComb, Director and Colleen Dietz, Assistant, have made a commitment to freshly prepared, locally sourced meals in this mid-size district just south of Salt Lake City. They proudly lists the farms and farmers who grow food for their kitchen, so that Provo students know where their food comes from -- and taking a few extra seconds to make something look more appealing to the eye has made all the difference. "We have had remarkable student reactions from doing something as simple as portioning out the salad into personal serving cups. If the students are hungry and the food is vibrant and fresh, they are going to eat it," says Alissa Alkema, Independence High School Manager.

Up in Kalispell, Montana, Public Schools, another medium-sized district close to the Canadian border, Jennifer Montague agrees that presentation and freshness are the keys to getting teens to eat more fruits and vegetables. She believes that young people are discerning customers and they will choose fruits and vegetables if they look appealing and taste good on a regular basis. "When we are doing a kale slaw, we must make sure the dressing is just right, and that the fruit rotation is fresh and changing. It's common sense -- we just have to make fruits and vegetables a priority on the lunch line and they will make them a priority on their trays," says Montague.

I am all for getting teens -- and even younger students -- activated to improve school meals. That's exactly what programs like Fuel Up to Play 60 and Alliance for a Healthy Generation have been doing for years -- with great success. In fact, we have reached the tipping point in school nutrition -- and it's time to use photos like these to inspire lagging districts to make changes.

If you really want to do something, there is no need to use old data and misleading photos. Let's spend our time showcasing what's possible and support all school nutrition professionals in serving meals the way districts like Lake Stevens, Bethel, Solvang, Provo and Kalispell are already doing. Jennifer Montague said it best: "If you build it well, they will eat it."

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