No, Really, #ThanksMichelleObama

24 Nov
Teens around the country are tweeting photographs of unappetizing school lunches along with the sarcastically hashtag “ThanksMichelleObama.” This trending hashtag highlights a complex issue in school food. While students should be applauded for using social media to advocate for positive food choices, this particular hashtag has unfortunately misdirected, oversimplified, and, in many cases, made a joke out of school nutrition. In the face of a national and global obesity crisis —  the disease has a global economic impact on par with armed violence, war, and terrorism, combined — school nutrition is no laughing matter.  Mrs. Obama has advocated for programs to address the crucial issue of childhood obesity school nutrition, including her Let’s Move campaign, promoting school and home gardens, and working alongside the USDA, to improve positive food choices in school lunch.
Setting aside issues of representation (fluorescent lighting and a styrofoam tray are not exactly appetizing,) and differing tastes (while not terribly healthy, those refried beans looked pretty tasty to me,) we’d love reflect for a moment on the efforts of Michelle Obama and the USDA to improve school lunch offerings and how schools and districts can do a better job of implementing changes to school lunch standards.
What’s been done?  Since 2010, the USDA’s school breakfast and lunch guidelines have undergone regular updates to reflect the latest in youth nutrition research. Recently, in part due to the advocacy of Mrs. Obama’s campaigns, these updates have:
  • required school food programs to include more whole grains
  • required school food programs to provide more fresh vegetables and fruits,
  • removed a requirement for a meat or meat alternative during breakfast, allowing for more popular, low sodium and whole grain options as cereal, yogurt and oatmeal.
  • improved opportunities for meatless offerings
  • reduced overall sodium in meals (salt is often used to make up for a lack of flavor)
  • helped schools serve healthier snacks, such as fruits, nuts and granola bars over the ever-popular cookies and candies.
What’s missing? Why haven’t these new standards improved students’ experiences with school lunch? Well, for starters, implementation of a policy can vary widely. While the lunches featured using the #thanksmichelleobama hashtag may meet guidelines, they may not reflect the spirit of the guidelines. USDA standards, when integrated in a thoughtful way, results in meals that look, taste and feel good. Secondly, even a thoughtful change can fail in implementation if it is rolled out without explanation and support within the school culture and/or curriculum. For districts and communities with tight budgets and understaffed schools, the thoughtful integration and introduction of new standards can be an overwhelming task. As many participants in this twitter conversation have pointed out, funding for education is at the root of this all.
What can be done?
As a Chicago Public Charter school, AGC has some flexibility with our budget that district-operated schools do not have. For only 50 cents extra per student per day, we are able to provide 100% organic meals scratch made with love by our in-house chef. While we receive — and spend — less per student than an equivalent district-operated school, we have worked to create an increasingly financially efficient model that allows us to prioritize the things that really matter to us, and which are directly tied to positive impacts for our students.
meatless monday lunch 2014

A typical “Meatless Monday” meal at AGC

While we’re not perfect, we made great food a priority of our school’s founding and have worked to improve our food program every day since then.  This year, we are partnering with Chicago’s Greater Good Studio to pilot food waste interventions and working on partnerships with Chicago chefs to share their passions for good food.

Ultimately, school food cannot be separated from the school itself. The food has to be good, objectively, but it also has to be attractive to the students, they have to understand what they’re eating and why they need it. We do a tremendous amount of education, with students and parents, about our food and our food policy.

We encourage feedback, from students, parents and staff. In a recent AGC student newspaper, our students conducted a poll about lunch to publicize their preferences. Rather than tweeting about politicians, our students communicated directly with the decision makers in a mature and productive way. For the record, their favorite school foods are Chef’s Pozole and Whole-Grain Pizza, their least favorites are Mac & Trees and Sloppy Joes, and the most requested menu items were Tamales and Kale Chips (which have previously been on the snack menu.)  Chef Eddie is an AGC parent himself, and takes seriously his role in our community. This winter, he will be teaching a cooking class for students and parents.

We are a community of learners and, at the same time, everyone is a teacher as well: faculty, staff, parents and students are asked to model for each other what an excellent relationship with food looks like. We have a food policy that applies to students, staff, and external events. Everyone is playing by the same rules. Staff are discouraged from even bringing in branded to-go cups, because the students will look up to them and associate that brand with something they admire.

Academy for Global Citizenship

Students at AGC eat scratch made foods served on washable plastic trays with real silverware, no styrofoam here.

What have we learned?

  • Flavor is key and, contrary to popular opinion, can be achieved without sacrificing nutrition. We use a little agave and fruit to sweeten foods, and make everything, including salad dressing and ketchup from scratch, so we can ensure flavor as well as nutritional value.
  • We work with the food service company to make sure we have the best ingredients—from organic kale crisps to hearty Manna bread.
  • Our dishes are often familiar…and often not.81% of our students come from Hispanic families, so healthy traditional Mexican dishes like veggie pozole are a no-brainer, but we also want to introduce them to international flavors such as French crepes and Greek soup.
  • We take our students’ opinions about food very seriously.We make a careful study of what the students like and what they leave on their plate and adjust menus accordingly.
  • It can be a challenge to get a child to try something new, and it truly takes a village to raise a child who likes kale crisps. Our goal is to foster a culture of health. Staff model excellent nutrition by eating with students, consuming healthy snacks and encouraging wellness outside of school with a faculty wellness fund. Parents participate in food education, both through formal mandatory “parent University” sessions as well as events such as the “Taste of AGC,” which is like a Good Food fest for our school community.
  • We teach what we preach: Our curriculum supports the food program and vice versa. Students understand the food cycle through “farm-to-fork” lessons and through visits to local farms, restaurants and factories.
  • We’re all farmers: our students are responsible for every part of our school garden, from seed to harvest. When children grow kohlrabi, radishes and kale from seed they cannot wait to taste them.

What can YOU do?

  • Take time. If your school doesn’t have the resources, volunteer, either to take on some food tasks yourself or to help them make the time! We ask our parents to volunteer 20 hours a year and we have many who well exceed that, often in the cafeteria. Everyone at AGC works overtime, including our kids, who have 17% more instructional time than a CPS school.
  • Advocate. We explained to our food service provider that great food was something we would not compromise on. We also explain to all of our partners the benefits of helping us source local, organic food. We share everything we do and open our doors to press, partners, and visitors from other schools.
  • Give what you can. Research schools, non-profits, and government agencies that are working to model positive food systems and support them however you can, through donations of time, money and other resources. To support AGC’s work to pilot and share exemplary school food initiatives, visit agcchicago.org/donate.
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One Response to “No, Really, #ThanksMichelleObama”

  1. Chicago-Oz November 26, 2014 at 10:17 am #

    This is so wonderful to read! I’m not from an Hispanic background, but could totally eat Mexican food any day of the week. Also, major kudos for nixing the styrofoam! I come from a country where styrofoam has pretty much been banned for over a decade, and was shocked and appalled to see the extent to which it is used here by restaurants and takeout places. I never knew that the schools actually used styrofoam trays though – that’s kind of mind-blowing to try and contemplate just how much is thrown away on a daily basis.

    I also spent some time teaching English in one of the poorest prefectures of Japan, where the students come from low socio-economic backgrounds and don’t necessarily live in home environments that value education. We found that school attendance rates were significantly higher on the days that certain meals were served (curry day was a major hit!), so the importance of good meals can never be underestimated.

    Great job – keep it up!

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