First Person

Healthier school menus not enough

School gardens, such as this one at Fairview Elementary in Denver, help reduce student resistance to healthier cafeteria meals, according to a recent study.

Redesigning school menus to be healthier and less reliant on processed foods makes sense but schools that want to influence long-term changes in students’ dietary habits should do more, a new report concludes.

For schools to more significantly influence their students’ food choices, they need to combine healthy lunchroom offerings with school gardens and cooking classes and integrate principles of good nutrition into all academic subjects, say researchers at the Robert C. and Veronica Atkins Center for Weight and Health at the University of California at Berkeley.

Failing that makes it more challenging to entice students to try new foods, to pack their own low-fat lunches, to regularly eat the healthful fare provided at school and to lobby for similarly healthful meals at home.

The report – Evaluation of the School Lunch Initiative: Changing Students’ Knowledge, Attitudes and Behavior in Relation to Food – examines the progress made in just one school district, the Berkeley Unified School District in California. But the findings do have broad implications for Colorado.

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Click here or scroll to the bottom to see the key recommendations from Berkeley researchers.

For one, the School Lunch Initiative in Berkeley was the brainchild of Ann Cooper, the nationally renowned “Renegade Lunch Lady,” who was Nutrition Services Director for BUSD before coming to the Boulder Valley School District in 2008 to revamp that local school district’s lunchroom offerings. Boulder Valley has been among the leaders in Colorado in jumping on the national school lunchroom reform bandwagon, along with Denver Public Schools.

For another, while Boulder Valley and DPS have been among the most aggressive in changing the nature of school meals, districts across the state have launched changes to one degree or another, including training school food personnel in scratch cooking, adding salad bars, banning sodas and flavored milks, and attempting to offer more Colorado-grown fresh produce and meats.

A much smaller number of schools have planted school gardens or partnered with outside organizations to offer cooking classes to students, in hopes of introducing them to healthful new foods and helping them develop a taste for the nutritious. Others have begun offering wellness classes or have built nutrition curriculum into P.E. or health classes.

Integration is key

The Berkeley study indicates that schools that manage to integrate cooking, gardening and classroom instruction along with improved lunchroom fare will produce the greatest long-term positive changes in students’ diets and lifestyle, and will see less student resistance to changed menus that no longer include tasty but unhealthy favorites.

Among the study’s key findings:

  • Parents with children in schools with highly developed programs – those that coupled improvements in school lunch with classroom learning and cooking and gardening classes – were more than twice as likely to say the school affected their child’s knowledge, attitudes and behavior in relation to food.
  • Preference for fruits and vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables, was far greater in schools with highly developed programs than in schools without. In fact, younger students in the highly developed schools increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables by nearly one and a half servings per day.
  • Middle school students exposed to highly developed programs were more likely to feel good about eating food served at school, to like the cafeteria, to think that produce tastes better in season, and to agree that eating choices can help or hurt the environment.

Also, the percentage of students complaining that the new lunchroom offerings were not as tasty as the old menu steadily decreased, from 18.5 percent the first year to 9.1 percent by the third year.

Meanwhile, the percentage of students who felt the new menu was tastier than the old steadily rose, from 7.7 percent the first year to 27.3 percent by the third.

Overcoming student reluctance

Student distaste for some of the new healthy lunchroom options has been a problem in Boulder Valley and elsewhere. School officials say it’s normal for sales of school lunches to fall – and especially for milk sales to initially plummet if chocolate milk is no longer an option – but that they expect sales to gradually rise as students adjust to the changes. In Boulder Valley, the school nutrition program lost $360,000 last year because of decreased sales. This Sept. 13 story from the Boulder Daily Camera documents the problem.

Ann Cooper has a national following as the "Renegade Lunch Lady" and school food consultant.

Cooper remains confident that the changes in Boulder Valley school menus will ultimately prove successful, even though the district doesn’t offer much in the way of experiential learning related to food. She says only about a quarter of the district’s schools have gardens, and many fewer offer cooking classes.

“In a perfect world, I would have cooking and gardening classes in all the schools, in all grades,” she said. “Berkeley has a much higher population of free and reduced price lunch students than Boulder does. That makes a difference.

“But the importance of experiential learning to get children to change their eating patterns correlates no matter where you are. That transcends income levels. And the idea that kids actually do take home what they learn in the school cafeteria is a great lesson.”

Cooper says without cooking and gardening classes to entice youngsters to try new foods, the lunchroom staff just has to work harder to make the meals appealing. One strategy is to offer free “tastings,” so children can sample new dishes to pique their interest.

“It may take longer, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be done,” she said. “Big business is spending $20 billion a year marketing non-nutrients to kids, marketing junk food. When you have experiential learning, your road to success is smoother and faster, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have success without it.”

Cooper also insists that despite dropping lunch sales in some schools, for every complaint she gets nine compliments about the food now being served in Boulder. “And the complaint emails I get aren’t all about the food, but about the short lunch periods, or having recess after lunch she said.”

“I’ve only been here 14 months,” she said. “I’m not sure what will come next, but we are continuing to raise the quality and to get really good food to kids every day. Over time, we will get more kids to eat.”

New menus a hit in DPS

In Denver, the changes to the school lunch menus seem to have increased – not decreased – student sales. Leo Lesh,  DPS director of food and nutrition services, reports that during the first three weeks of school, lunch sales were up 4 percent over the same period last year, and in those schools that have moved to scratch cooking, sales are up 6 percent.

“The district has grown so some of that is just more new kids in the system,” he said. “But we don’t have 6 percent more new kids.”

DPS lunchroom workers spent time in culinary classes over the summer to learn some scratch cooking basics, as the district moves aggressively to improve its lunchroom fare.

Lesh said DPS has followed a different philosophy than Boulder Valley.

“We haven’t been pushing organics, and we haven’t been as prohibitive as Ann has,” he said. “Our kids still have a choice of flavored milk that’s been reformulated to have less sugar. Kids want that choice. Most likely, the only time a kid will get flavored milk is at school because parents don’t usually buy chocolate milk at home. If they drink more milk, they’ll drink less soda. And milk has more nutrients in it. You don’t get calcium in water. You do get it in milk, even in flavored milk.”

Lesh said DPS has also avoided investing in organic food because he wants to make it easy for parents to emulate what’s served in school cafeterias. “We know a lot won’t buy organics because they don’t have the money. But the idea of making a wholesome meal from scratch is something everybody can do.”

Lesh wishes more schools had gardens, but he says even those that do don’t always succeed at getting youngsters into it.

“It helps to have nutrition education, and a garden where kids can see where their food is coming from. But not that many kids get involved,” he said. “It’s boring to many of them. If you had a ton of kids involved, that would help, but I don’t think a garden is something that has to be there.

“But the education, the choices you offer in the cafeteria, seeing things prepared from scratch, offering better quality food – do that and kids will naturally gravitate to the cafeteria.”

Using pyschology to boost sales

Like Boulder Valley, DPS tries to offer “tastings” of its new menu offerings to lure children into sampling things they may never have eaten at home before. Lunchroom workers also try to use some psychology to market their foods.

“It’s little things, like making sure the fruit is placed in colorful bowls instead of stainless steel,” Lesh said. “And we have our people wear uniforms, chef coats, to make them look and act more professional. This goes a long way in the perception of our customers.”

DPS isn’t alone in applying child psychology to lunchroom marketing. Just last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a new $2 million initiative to hire food behavior scientists to find betters ways of making healthy school lunches more appealing to students while subtly discouraging unhealthy treats.

Among the strategies some places are employing: keeping ice cream in freezers without glass tops so it’s out of sight; placing salad bars next to checkout registers, so students waiting in line to pay will have more time to consider getting a salad; and express lines for healthier foods.

The three-year study of the School Lunch Initiative in Berkeley Unified School District in Berkeley, Calif., concluded with a number of recommendations for districts. Among them:

  • Sustain an integrated approach. Continue to create synergies between school food and garden and cooking classes. Further develop curriculum integration with core academic subjects.
  • Ensure teaching and regular student attendance in school gardens and kitchen classrooms. It is not enough to build a school garden or kitchen classroom. Paid staff to conduct hands-on learning in these environments with children attending regularly is critical.
  • Maintain programming into middle school. Middle school is often a time when eating habits worsen. Continued learning and availability of healthy food options can overcome the pull toward poor habits.
  • Reach out to parents and community members. More insight is needed to understand why children and not helping with cooking meals and home.
  • Devise ways to improve the quality of food brought from home to school, including food brought for celebrations, fund-raisers and other events.
  • Explore ways to increase student physical activity during garden and cooking classes.
  • Reinforce a wide variety of healthy eating behaviors. This means emphasis on reducing the consumption of low-quality processed foods and sweetened beverages along with practical tips about obtaining and choosing high-quality foods.

First Person

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.