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Healthy, Tasty Meals Keep Students Lining 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 Chandler Unified School District in Chandler, Arizona, are successfully implementing the standards.

Healthy changes that work

“If you make things taste good, kids will eat it. That’s the bottom line,” said Cathy Giza, retired director of child nutrition and wellness for Chandler Unified School District, referring to the secret to getting kids to eat healthfully. Giza knows plenty of insider secrets; she worked for the district’s food service department for 26 years before retiring at the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

Over the years Giza devised many strategies to serve healthy, palatable food to her district’s nearly 40,000 students. Among the most important: be flexible. “We tried to be really open to the cafeteria managers’ ideas and strategies and give them autonomy,” she said. That means that all 29

If you make things taste good, kids will eat it. That's the bottom line."

- Cathy Giza, retired director of child nutrition

elementary schools may have different ways of promoting fruits and vegetables in the lunch line; some offer a salad bar while others prefer grab-and-go cups of chopped produce.

Chandler Unified School District was transparent about the fact that the food they served was becoming healthier. Food Service Director Wes Delbridge, who took over for Giza, uses social media to share new recipes and seek feedback from parents and the community. He and Giza invited parents and students to join taste tests at the district’s central kitchen and coordinated with the bus companies to provide transportation. “Social media gives people an opportunity to weigh in,” said Giza. “If you tell your story, people will be more receptive to what you’re trying to do.”

To reduce sodium, Giza swapped a popular Ranch vegetable dip for a home-made version that complied with the standards. “You just have to balance it,” said Giza. “If you have two higher sodium items, you may just not be able to serve them in the same week—you have to spread them out.” She added, “Making things from scratch has been helpful.”

Several Chandler schools have opted to move recess before lunch to prevent students from rushing outside to play before finishing their meals. “Giving kids the whole time that’s allocated to eat helps prevents waste, and any food that we don’t throw away is definitely a bonus!” said Giza.

Investments in nutrition yield big returns

In addition to benefiting children’s’ health, Giza believes that national nutrition standards will benefit manufacturers’ bottom line, too. “It’s been a struggle for the manufacturers to have so many different standards, causing prices to rise whenever they have to reformulate,” she said. “Now universal standards are pushing manufacturers to develop new products that are palatable and affordable.”

The standards have also created the opportunity for schools to come up with healthy ways to boost revenue. At Chandler junior high and high schools, cafeterias have started making fresh-baked pizza on a whole wheat crust with low-moisture, part-skim cheese. Giza said, “We can sell it à la carte or make it part of a meal—it’s now a signature product for us.”

Lastly, the changes to school meals provide an opportunity to model healthy habits at school. “Kids need to see role models in their home life and at school,” said Giza. “Certainly the child nutrition program, by its name alone, should be part of that role modeling and should be supporting nutrition for kids.”

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