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Cooking from Scratch Keeps Costs Down and Participation Up

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Aside from home, kids spend most of their time at school where they consume up to 50 percent of their daily calories.

Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 to encourage schools to serve nutritious foods and drinks. The U.S. Department of Agriculture updated nutrition standards for the national school lunch and breakfast programs and for food and drinks sold to students in snack bars, vending machines, and à la carte cafeteria lines. As a result, more schools across America now offer healthier snacks and beverages, contributing to students’ wellbeing and academic success.

The Alliance for a Healthier Generation has been working with schools to implement nutrition standards for school snacks and drinks since 2006, and we’ve found that thousands of schools, such as Metropolitan School District of Pike Township in Indianapolis, Indiana, are successfully implementing the standards.

Healthy changes that work

The Metropolitan School District of Pike Township is home to families with diverse social, cultural, ethnic, and economic backgrounds; approximately 70 percent of students qualify for free and reduced price meals. “Our students spend most of their day here at school. If they don’t learn how to be healthy in school, it’s going to be very difficult to learn outside of school,” said Betsy Horneffer, resident district manager with Chartwells, a division of Compass Group North America, who works with Pike Township.

About three years ago, the district began to shift its focus toward wellness. The food service department made small changes by swapping refined grain for whole grain products, reducing sodium, and bolstering fresh fruit and vegetable offerings.

"Our students spend most of their day here at school. If they don't learn how to be healthy in school, it's going to be very difficult to learn outside of school."

- Betsy Horneffer, Resident District Manager

“There are a lot of good products out there, you just have to be willing to look for them and at Chartwells K12 we put a lot of effort into that,” said Horneffer. “There are also a lot of great recipes out there that meet the new standards if you’re willing to really cook.” The district has several chefs on staff who have been training food service personnel in new cooking and food preparation techniques. Kitchen staff began making their own spaghetti sauce, taco meat, and their most popular item—homemade pizza—from scratch. “We’ve really tried to get back to the basics of cooking again and teaching staff to cook with a variety of seasonings,” Horneffer said.

Before making it onto the menu, students sample new items at “chef tables” in the cafeteria. Recently many students tried kale chips for the first time. “The students went crazy for the kale chips! As soon as they ate them they were all coming back for seconds,” Horneffer said.

Each school offers a fresh fruit and vegetable bar where students can take unlimited servings of tossed salad, carrot sticks, orange wedges, or three bean salad to accompany their reimbursable meal. Horneffer says that students learned how to measure portion sizes and to take only what they could eat—an important lesson in satiety. “The bars really help at the high school because students that are hungrier, like the athletes, can get the calories they need while still eating the school meals,” said Horneffer. “And they’re getting full on the right stuff.”

Pike Township’s innovations aren’t limited to lunch. When tight schedules began to interfere with students eating breakfast at school, Horneffer suggested moving breakfast into the classroom for kindergarten through eighth grade students. “At first, we had to figure out the logistics but now we never get complaints,” she said. “It doesn’t take away from instructional time and we found that we have fewer students going to the nurse with upset stomachs in the morning because they’re hungry.”

Investments in nutrition yield big returns

Despite changes to the food served in the district, sales and meal counts have remained steady. “We gave the students input into our menu planning. Getting them involved and hearing their feedback has helped us avoid any negative impact,” said Horneffer. Serving more fresh fruits and vegetables is more expensive, but Horneffer says by contracting with Chartwells, she was able to increase buying power to keep her costs down.

The food service staff know they’re succeeding in building healthy eating habits by the comments students make in the cafeteria. “When I get new students, I hear them say: Wow I get all these choices! This food is so good,” said Horneffer. She has also noticed that students have become more willing to try new foods in the cafeteria since implementing the chef tables. “We give elementary students a sticker that says ‘I tried something new’ and send them home with recipe cards. We hope that starts a dialogue with their parents, too.”

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