Remember the ketchup controversy?
It was 1981, a few months after President Ronald Reagan took office, when a U.S. Department of Agriculture task force addressing school lunch regulations declared ketchup and other condiments "vegetables," thereby sidestepping requirements that schoolkids be given actual green stuff. The policy was met with outrage and never went into practice, but it helps illustrate the thinking about school lunches at the time: Keep it cheap.
If you ate school cafeteria food during that time period, you know that it was cheap. And horrid. Styrofoam plates heaped with hockey-puck hamburgers, mystery casserole, pizza that stuck to the plate.
By comparison, Colorado Springs School District 11's Good Food Project looks inspirational.
In 2009, director of food and nutrition services Rick Hughes launched the program with a goal of bringing "good food" back to D-11 cafeterias. "Good" as in "made from scratch," unprocessed, and sourced from farms.
By January, he aims to come as close as possible to eliminating growth hormones, antibiotics, artificial dyes and preservatives, hydrogenated oils and added sugars (including corn syrup).
"When you stop and think about it, the nourishment that we obtain from eating food sustains our lives," Hughes wrote in a news bulletin to parents and kids last fall, when the program had gone into full swing. "It stands to reason that the better food we consume, the better our lives will be related to overall health, physical and cognitive performance, and mental health."
D-11's staff, Hughes says, has been reading nutrition labels since 2009 and rejecting foods that don't meet their tough standards. Kids in D-11 eat grass-fed, hormone- and antibiotic-free Ranch Foods Direct beef. They get all-natural chicken from Red Bird and Pilgrim's. They have produce from local farms. Many bread products are made from scratch. Even their ketchup is free of corn syrup.
"We just have a genuine interest for what's best for kids," Hughes says. "We saw Food, Inc. when Food, Inc. first came out, and we came out scratching our heads and saying, 'Is the American food industry really that bad?'"
Hughes says he did his research, and in short, he found the answer was "yes." It's a profit-driven industry, and producers do what they can to make food visually attractive and extremely "palatable."
But the chemicals and additives that make processed macaroni and cheese bright orange and chicken nuggets spongy, don't make them healthy. Hughes notes that processed foods have long had a huge presence in school cafeterias, because much school food is provided free-of-charge from the USDA commodities program, which purchases excess crops from farmers to stabilize food prices.
"The commodities program is heavily influenced by the food industry," Hughes says, "and the food industry has really written the rules for school lunches for a long time."
Hughes says D-11 still gets some free food from the government, which he wants to take advantage of so he can keep student cost down. (This fall, the district will increase breakfasts by 5 cents a meal and lunches by 10 cents a meal across all grades, following a year of no increases.) But he tries to keep it mostly to fresh and frozen vegetables, so that he can bring in more high-quality foods.
D-11 administrative dietitian Jamie Humphrey says the concept is simple: "We've adopted this phrase: 'Real kids deserve real food.'
"If they're getting better food, they can concentrate better in the classroom," Humphrey says.
"...It's really great because we've gotten feedback. We've had parents that say, 'We're so glad you're making changes.' And their kids, when they've come home, have said, 'Can we get apples instead of Twinkies?'"
Making it yummy
Now, it hasn't been all backslaps and brussels sprouts. Hughes says he also got calls from parents angry about processed favorites being yanked.
He found himself having to explain that trans fats build up in your body and affect your heart, and that artificial dyes have been linked to hyperactivity in children. Those conversations, however initially frustrating, turned out positive, Hughes says; the parents got it.
Of course, it's helped to have someone like Brian Axworthy in his corner. Axworthy, a chef, says he's worked kitchens in five-star resorts, hotels and country clubs over the course of his 18-year career. He was hired a year ago by the district with this charge: to bring natural flavors, spices and fun presentations to cafeteria menus.
"It's a give-and-take [with the kids]," Axworthy says. "Part of my job is to make sure the foods are going to interest them."
Most of D-11's menu items are variations on comfort foods. Axworthy makes homemade macaroni and cheese with vegetables blended into the sauce, along with bright orange turmeric. It looks just like the Kraft Foods version. But it's healthier.
He makes "bbq chicken," only he uses natural chicken and a homemade sauce. He makes turkey wraps with fresh spinach and whole-wheat tortillas. Mashed potatoes are a savory mix of regular potatoes and nutritionally rich sweet potatoes. Taco salads are packed with fresh veggies and topped with fresh salsa. Baked ziti has ground beans substituting for part of the meat.
So will D-11 help change the nation's school lunch system? Or the way that kids think about food?
"I think that's a paradigm shift," Axworthy says. "But I think what we're doing is a first step."