It’s time to invest in schools – and food service programs

More than half the schools in the United States are spending less per pupil this year than they were in 2008 when the last Great Recession hit. While there are many reasons for these spending cuts, the fact that the country as a whole is more than $46 billion behind in infrastructure support and improvement is hard to ignore.

As experts all over the country begin to discuss how important it is that we return to funding our children’s education, we also know that it’s important that we spend money more efficiently than we have in the past. Too many administrators still look at food service programs as a frustrating part of their day to day operations, instead of the exciting opportunity to influence our kids to make healthy lunch choices while providing the district with valuable data about what is and is not working in the school nutrition program.

Get teachers back to what they should be doing

Many teachers express frustration with the amount of paperwork they need to do around school lunches. Between placing lunch orders, communicating with parents about what their children should be getting, and trying to orchestrate the free and reduced meals programs, teachers have the right to be frustrated.

Whereas many lunch programs offer the ability for parents to pay ahead and online, MySchoolAccount also gives kids and parents the ability to pre-order their meals. This saves paperwork time for teachers, and helps kids make healthier choices.

Reduce waste by planning ahead

Schools provide meals to the vast majority of American kids during the school year. There is an obligation for schools to provide healthy choices to kids, but the struggle can be getting kids to choose healthier items.

Studies have shown, however, that when kids place their orders early in the day instead of needing to make a choice in the lunch line, they’re more likely to experiment with new foods, and are more likely to choose healthier options.

Let the food service program lead the charge in improving the school’s infrastructure

Schools that have happy, healthful, efficient nutrition programs have happier, more involved parents and healthier kids with fewer behavior problems. There’s a lot more about our schools that needs to be revamped and revitalized to get them back up to the standard our children deserve, but serving healthy meals without breaking the school’s budget is a great way to take a big step forward.

Free School Meals – Ensuring that All Children Are Able to Learn

Good nutrition is at the heart of learning. Studies show that, not only do students need a good breakfast and lunch for health reasons, but they also perform better on important standardized tests and assignments when they have a healthy meal. In contrast, brain functions slow down and are impeded by improper nutrition, junk food and poor food choices. So parents often turn to schools to offer the nutrition their child needs to excel.

The Problem with Lunch Programs of the Past

Free lunches and reduced-priced meals have been available to kids in public schools for some time. The problem was that only a select group of kids actually qualified for the free lunches. Many parents are low-income but fall just above the cut-off for such programs, yet still have struggles paying the amount charged by schools for daily lunches. For parents with multiple children in school, this can become a daily expense that they cannot afford.

Is Free Breakfast Enough?

Some schools have begun implementing free breakfast programs, in an effort to increase the involvement level of parents to get their kids started right in the morning. However, offering free breakfast is not enough. Many kids need free lunches as well, but their parents often do not know that they qualify, or they are not educated on what to do to get this going for their child.

Community-based Free Lunches

President Obama’s new free lunch program is out to change that. The legislation relies on the criteria of “community eligibility,” rather than individual need. Based on the general needs of the community in which the children live and attend school, free lunches are offered to low-income children.

This federal provision was made available as of the 2014-15 school year. It is now available for low-income communities with children who attend school but cannot afford lunch at the regular prices. It offers children 2 meals per school day: breakfast and lunch, which increases the chances of success in learning even more.

What to Do to Take Advantage of the New Program

Parents of communities need only to contact their local school districts to see if their area qualifies. Regarding school lunches, specific requirements are now much easier to reach than in previous legislative actions. The President’s new ruling opens the doors to many who had gone without proper nutrition in the past and makes it easier than ever to get nutrition to kids who need it the most.

Sustainability Trends in School Food Service

In many schools across the United States, from elementary through college, cafeterias are beginning to move towards providing healthier, sustainable options for students. Sustainable food is ethically responsible, minimizes the negative effects on the environment, prioritizes human health, and is produced from places that treat animals humanely and treat workers fairly.

The current generation of students cares about where their food comes from, and how it got to their plates – in other words, they care whether or not their food is sustainable. Kids are also craving more whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, and foods made from scratch instead of the highly processed foods that have been served in many cafeterias.

Schools that don’t provide sustainable food selections are running into problems – students don’t consider sustainability to be an option; it’s a necessity. High school students in Chicago are publicly protesting their current school lunch options, claiming that it is “unhealthy, unappetizing, and overly processed.” (WBEZ91.5)

So, what are successful schools doing to promote the sustainable food movement within school cafeterias? How are schools meeting the demands of students and their families? There are several things that schools are doing and can continue to do so that the foods kids are eating in school are good for them, good for the environment, and good for the future.

Taking Students’ Health into Consideration

There are some food preferences that students share at all ages like hand held foods, on-the-go options, made-to-order foods, and common staples, like fruits, pizza, chicken sandwiches, and salads. Taste preferences tend to differ depending on the age of the student; younger children prefer simpler foods and older ones enjoy more complex and diverse options.

Schools who support the sustainability movement understand these differences, and how to select food options based on student needs. For example, serving complex dishes to fourth graders would result in a lot more food waste, which is not sustainable, but college students are likely to appreciate it.

Reducing Kitchen Waste

There are a lot of ways to reduce the amount of waste that results from a school kitchen and cafeteria, from recycling and reusing materials and composting food waste to choosing more eco-friendly packaging and dish options. Many schools are choosing to get food locally, which minimizes the amount of packaging and padding required to transport it to the school, and ultimately, reduces waste.

Composting

Schools do tend to have some waste, but there is a sustainable way to deal with it. Composting takes sustainability one step further – it doesn’t end when the food is consumed. Children of all ages can learn to compost, from elementary through college. At the higher level, using compostable food packaging or other materials also reduces waste and adds to sustainability.

Compost can be reused as the process begins again – it can help fertilize landscaping, gardening and farming on school grounds.

Local Sourcing

Another way to promote sustainable food practices is to get food locally. Foods that travel the shortest distances have the least effect on the environment. It’s also easier to get local foods faster, which means that these foods are the freshest and are more likely to retain their health benefits by the time they’re served on a student’s plate.

School Gardens

One of the ultimate results of a more sustainable school food system, including compost as fertilizer, the most local sourcing possible, minimizing fuel and transportation costs, and using fresh, healthy, whole, foods, is that students and staff are taking things into their own hands, and growing their own sustainable foods. This can be a very cost effective option, and it can potentially fit the definition of sustainable food to a tee, depending on how the garden is cared for.