By Susan Davis Gryder 2015-06-09 10:16:11
Meet four youngsters who may wield influence over the school cafeterias of 2050 HERE WE ARE fully immersed in the 21st century, with all its school nutrition changes and challenges, from updated nutrition standards regulations to innovations in food technology. Looking 20 or 30 years down the line, who knows what advances in school nutrition will be supporting the health and well-being of the nation’s kids!? Whether you imagine a cafeteria filled with Star Trek-inspired food replicators or a lunch line brimming with the fruits of local farms, your vision of the future likely still has school nutrition professionals behind the scenes. Those future food experts are probably having lunch in school cafeterias right now. What do the nutrition leaders of tomorrow think about the lunchrooms of today? In this article, meet four young people whose potential achievements may very well influence the meals our great-grandchildren eat at school. A DISCERNING FOOD CRITIC IN TRAINING While 7-year-old Isabella Magnoni may only be in the second grade, she’s already taken on the role of a discriminating food reviewer in her school cafeteria. She’s a far more thoughtful critic than most kids, whose typical feedback tends to range between “yum” and “yuck.” Isabella carefully chooses her meal from the various available choices each day, asking insightful questions about how it was prepared, and, after finishing up, making time to provide the cafeteria staff, Miss Jess and Miss Barbara, with her feedback. When Doris Demers, school nutrition director at Oyster River School District, Durham, N.H., reached out to Isabella’s parents to arrange for an interview with School Nutrition, she began by referencing Isabella’s curious behavior in the lunchroom, “Her dad thought she was in trouble!,” Demers recounts. “I told him: ‘Quite the contrary! We love her curiosity and her willingness to try new foods.’” Isabella is also a devoted label-reader and likes to help her parents make healthy choices at the grocery store. Isabella is enthusiastic about most of her cafeteria’s offerings. “I love grilled cheese, and the salmon burgers are delicious,” she tells SN. “My favorite day of all is Friday, pizza day. I like the feta and sweet potato pizza.” For Isabella, the cafeteria staff is an important part of lunch, too: “I know them and I love the food they make. Of course, I tell them every day when I [deliver my tray]!” Demers says Isabella also provides constructive criticism, and she notices when recipes are altered, such as when sodium levels are lowered or ground turkey is substituted for beef in the operation’s taco salad. All in all, though, Demers believes the changes she and her team have made to improve the nutritional profile of her offerings have been popular with most students. “Kids in my district eat well at home, and I want to give them those choices here, too,” she notes. When I arrived here, the culture was: ‘We don’t eat school lunch.’ But we’ve seen improvements, including a 42% increase in participation at one elementary school!” Isabella likes to cook at home, too, and makes her breakfast all by herself. Indeed, she might end up behind the stove when she grows up: “I like dogs a lot,” she says, “so I could be a person who owns a kennel or a dog shelter, or I could be a chef. The best thing about being a chef would be cooking stuff to make kids happy—and grownups, too, maybe!” MEET A FUTURE IRON CHEF When Sapulpa Public Schools held its first Junior Chefs contest among elementary school students, Oklahoma fourth-grader Edie Chapman stepped right up to participate. Edie, age 10, is an enthusiastic home cook and kitchen helper, and developed a recipe she thought would stand a good chance in the contest. Her entry, Messy Tacos, includes seasoned meat and salsa with a smooth sauce of avocado, Greek yogurt and a hint of lime, all wrapped with rice in lettuce leaves instead of tortillas. (Yum!) Edie placed second in the competition. Child Nutrition Director Nancy Sitler launched the Junior Chefs contest to create some excitement in her cafeterias and seek out youthful ideas for acceptable new menu items. The contest began with students submitting written recipes; sifting through these, Sitler invited 12 finalists (three from each of the district’s elementary schools) to prepare their entries in a live competition at one site. Edie’s mother, Carey Chapman, reports that Edie has been cooking for the last year and a half, perfecting such recipes as French toast stuffed with peanut butter. “When she brought home the [contest permission] form from school and said she wanted to do the contest, I said, ‘You’re going to have to do it all by yourself!’ And she was raring to go!” Chapman believes the contest was a way for Edie to venture out on her own and take a chance: “We are really very proud of her!” Although “I was very nervous, because I’d never been judged for my cooking before,” Edie didn’t let those nerves get the best of her. “I got over it and just started to cook.” Each contestant presented their dish to a three-judge panel, who rated it on appearance, taste and how it would fit into a healthy meal. Edie won $75 in VISA gift cards. Edie has plans to continue developing her culinary skills. “I want to be a professional chef because I love making my food, and it tastes really good! I might like to work in a school cafeteria one day—it would be fun to cook and make healthy food for young kids.” A SAVVY ACTIVIST FOR SCHOOL NUTRITION Reagan Spomer is a South Dakota fifth grader who knows firsthand why health and nutrition are important. “I am involved in a lot of sports, including swim team,” she says, “and that triggered my wanting to be healthier, so I could swim faster and get better at it. This made me notice that kids weren’t always as healthy as they need to be.” Reagan is one of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s current crop of Student Ambassadors, a group of 20 motivated kids who serve as youth spokespeople for the national organization that focuses on childhood obesity issues. The Alliance’s Student Ambassadors’ mission includes engagement with their communities and peers on this critical topic. [Editors’ Note: See “Kids Today, Having Their Say,” June/July 2013 to learn more about the program.] Reagan, at 11 years old, saw the role that school nutrition can play in kids’ health and didn’t hesitate to step up and ask for changes. Concerned that her peers were just throwing away the produce options being served, she wanted to turn that behavior around. To start, “I thought kids wanted more variety,” she says. Reagan created a survey for elementary school students throughout the Pierre School District, including questions about lunch in general, as well as about favorite offerings at both home and at school. In particular, she asked which fruits and vegetables kids would like to see in the cafeteria. She worked with the district’s business manager to put the survey into an electronic format using SurveyMonkey, and sent it out to four elementary schools. Almost 260 students took the survey in computer class; the results showed a clear preference for more fresh fruits and vegetables! Reagan presented the results before the district school board. “Most of them thought it was pretty cool!” she recalls. “Some weren’t sure about making the changes, but they were pretty excited that a kid had decided to come and ask for healthier lunches. I believe they hear the parents’ view, but then they heard a kid say, ‘I’m not getting the fuel I need to do sports after school.’ I think that prompted them to support healthier lunches.” Reagan says a couple of weeks after her presentation to the school board, she began to see more overall variety in fresh fruits and vegetables in the school cafeteria. And her activism didn’t stop with the adults in the school community. For a Food Day promotion at her elementary school, Reagan devised a clever nutrition game to teach fourth-graders how to read a nutrition label. “I had everyone bring in something with a nutrition label. Then we played a game where we tried to find the healthiest [product]—everyone whose item had more than 8 grams of sugar had to sit down, for example. At the end of the game, the kids left standing had the healthiest things.” It was an eye-opening activity for her peers; many were surprised to discover that items they thought were healthy— such as certain brands of fruit smoothies or yogurt—actually had a lot of fat and sugar. Reagan is optimistic about the future of school meals. “I think school lunches will be getting healthier,” she predicts. “In Pierre, they are building a new school that has a kitchen. One of the big problems here is that food is made at one school and then shipped [to sites without a kitchen], so it has to be put in a warmer. Kitchens in schools will help this.” As for Reagan herself, she hopes to help the next generation at the very beginning, as a neonatologist. “I will have to study nutrition in college and medical school,” she says. “Lots of babies need good nutrition to help them fight off sickness, because their immune systems aren’t fully developed yet.” A GOOD CHAMPION FOR GOOD HEALTH Tyler Tucker, age 15, is passionate about healthy habits and has a good understanding of the barriers that young people can face on the way to a lifetime of good health and fitness. That attitude has personal roots: “My mom is an RN, and other family members are in the health field. And in my family, there are a lot of health issues, like heart disease and diabetes.” Not content to keep activism in the family, Tyler wants to make the school environment healthier for all kids in his Ben Hill County (Ga.) School District. “This year,” Tyler says, “I created the first district wellness committee, which is scheduled to start next school year. We are hoping to have a fully funded smoothie bar for our high school, and we are partnering with Fuel Up to Play 60 [to fund special projects] here in Georgia.” As a Youth Ambassador for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, Tyler is committed to service-learning and outreach in his community to help reduce the rate of childhood obesity. He also serves on the Georgia 4H Southwest District Board of Directors and is working with both groups to create a healthy kids summit, aimed at improving the health of all Georgia schoolchildren. This effort is in line with Tyler’s personal philosophy about influencing the future of nutrition and wellness. “It’s really important to start with our generation. We need to step up and be role models, creating that motivation that our generation needs and providing for future generations at the same time.” Tyler has a practical, pragmatic attitude about some of the challenges related to school lunch, and how these can be met in the future. “The biggest challenge is how school lunch is presented,” he asserts. “If we come up with ideas to make the lunch line more appealing to students—for example, [making available] attractive fruit bowls or fruit-infused water—[kids] will buy a healthy lunch.” He has worked closely with Martha Dixon, Ben Hill nutrition coordinator on improvements. Tyler also envisions cafeterias taking greater advantage of technology, coupled with providing more fresh and freshly prepared food: “Maybe we will have fingerprint scanners taking the place of school IDs. We’ll have more fresh fruits and vegetables, and more baked and grilled stuff, instead of just pizza and hamburgers.” For Tyler, the experience working with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, along with the opportunity to travel and meet other young people who are interested in nutrition and health, has been transformative. “It’s giving me a stepping stone, giving me the motivation to reach for the sky! This has been a life-changing experience.” Tyler plans on studying epidemiology and one day serving as U.S. Surgeon General. THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT These four young people are just a small sample of the growing number of kids all around the country who are excited about wellness issues and see the role that nutritious school food can play in their future. They are full of energy and good ideas, with a healthy portion of inspiration to share with their peers. Take a few moments during the busy meal service and look around. Could the future of school nutrition be having lunch at that table in the corner or standing in line at the salad bar? Time will tell, and your encouragement and role modeling can be a powerful influence! Susan Davis Gryder is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md. Photos of Tyler Tucker and Reagan Spomer are courtesy of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation; of Isabella Magnoni, courtesy of Doris Demers; and of Edie Chapman, courtesy of Sapulpa Daily Herald, Johnny Brock, photographer. Photo on page 74 by jiunlimited.com.
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