I remember the lunches I used to eat in grade school: cardboard-consistency frozen pizza, neon-yellow macaroni and cheese, and soggy french fries. I don’t recall ever eating a vegetable in school from the ages of five to seventeen. With these options on the school-lunch menu, and with most parents too busy to pack healthier choices for their kids, it’s no wonder that the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that 19.6 percent of children (ages six to eleven) and 18.1 percent of adolescents (ages twelve to eighteen) are obese in this country. Now some schools are fighting back against these overwhelming statistics.
Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard
How do you get locally grown produce to inner-city schoolchildren? Turn schools into student-run farms! Edible Schoolyard (ESY)  is a one-acre organic garden and kitchen classroom for students at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley, California. Run by the Chez Panisse Foundation, a nonprofit organization begun by chef and author Alice Waters, ESY began in 1995 in a vacant lot; students visited once a month. Now, all of the school’s one thousand students attend between twelve and thirty kitchen and garden sessions per year (depending on their grade level). In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, ESY launched an affiliate program in New Orleans, Louisiana, and has since established a network of similar affiliate programs across the country.
Jamba Juice’s Fruity Concept
Some U.S. schools are taking advantage of a sweet new deal from California-based smoothie chain Jamba Juice. According to PR Newswire, Jamba has formed a partnership with the National PTA to support parents and teachers in creating school programs that encourage students to lead healthy lifestyles. The Jamba School Appreciation Program provides swipe cards for members of registered school communities to use with each purchase at participating Jamba Juice locations. Ten percent of proceeds from the purchase go to the local school PTA and two percent go to the National PTA.
Jamba also announced the start of its Jamba Juice School Lunch Program at the 2010 Summit on Health, Nutrition, and Obesity. This program allows schools to offer Jamba’s All Fruit smoothie line at a fixed discount for students.
In addition to trying to get school kids to make healthier eating choices, Jamba is also trying to get them to move more. In partnership with the California Association for Health, Physical Education, and Dance, Jamba asked more than eighty-eight thousand children and their parents to break the Guinness World Records’  previous record for the most people jumping or skipping rope at the same time on Jamba Jump Day, February 1, 2010. (They succeeded; the old record was fifty-nine thousand people.)
“Jamba brings unique solutions to the table,” says James D. White, company president and CEO. “We are activating the innovation and spirit of our company and employees to inspire healthy living and more physical activity, particularly among youth.”
No Red Tape or Red Meat for Tony Geraci
Anthony Geraci has become a sort of celebrity in the field of school-lunch programs. In 2008, he left his position as executive director of First Course, a culinary training and job-placement program for people who suffer from addiction, mental illness, or developmental problems. He went on to become what Dan Rodricks of the Baltimore Sun describes as the “high-energy, red-tape intolerant director of food and nutrition services for the city [of Baltimore, Maryland] schools, which constitute ground zero in the battle over childhood obesity and bad eating habits for Baltimore.”
Since assuming his current post, Geraci has implemented a host of programs aimed at getting Baltimore’s youth to make healthier choices and appreciate the sources of their food. They include Meatless Mondays; purchasing relationships with local farmers; the Great Kids Farm, a student-run farm on abandoned city property; student-run gardens at more than thirty of the city’s schools; and the move to include students on menu-planning teams. Geraci is now seeking funding for his next initiative: a central-district kitchen that would supply freshly made meals to satellite kitchens around the city.
In the face of complicated government subsidies and standards, school districts all over the country are trying to implement farm-to-school programs. Marin Organic , an association of Marin County, California, farmers, ranchers, agricultural advisors, and marketing experts working to preserve farmland and the farming way of life in their area, offers its School Lunch and Gleaning Program as a solution.
Since 2000, the program has been connecting Marin farms to more than half of the public and private schools in the area. Marin Organic delivers gleaned food—crops that would otherwise be left in the field because they don’t meet the aesthetic standards of restaurants and retail markets despite being perfectly good to eat—to schools, and helps schools fit fresh, certified-organic, local food into their tight budgets. According to its Web site, the program currently serves approximately twelve thousand children per week.
Breakfast’s on Jeff
Jeff Mills, the new director of food service for Washington, D.C., schools, is often criticized for his lack of experience. (His previous gigs include ownership of the three-star Biltmore Room and a cameo on HBO’s Sex and the City.) But Mills, who was handpicked by D.C. school chancellor Michelle Rhee, is trying to catch up. He’s made visits to Geraci’s schools and to ESY for ideas about replacing the processed, sugary foods ubiquitous in D.C. schools. He’s got his work cut out for him; Washington, D.C., has the highest rate of adolescent obesity in the country, according to the CDC, and 70 percent of the city’s forty thousand children are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
Mills’s first solution has been the Breakfast in the Classroom Program, an idea first implemented in New York City schools. Since its start in November 2009, Mills’s pilot program has expanded from one school to twelve, with the number of students receiving breakfast each morning increasing by 20 percent. By serving breakfast in the classroom instead of before school, Mills makes sure that every child starts the day with a full stomach, even those who didn’t manage to arrive forty-five minutes early to go to the cafeteria. The program also allows teachers to supervise the meal and encourage good choices.
Desiree Lucas, who teaches fifth grade at southeast D.C.’s James A. Garfield Elementary, the initial test school for Mills’s program, considers Breakfast in the Classroom a success. “I see [the children] are more attentive [in class],” she told the Washington Post, “and I think they enjoy [the program], too.”
Mills is also planning school gardens, vegetarian menu options, and a central-district kitchen modeled on Geraci’s idea.
Let’s Do Lunch
I wish I could have eaten organic salads every day in high school. School lunches sure have come a long way from the mystery-meat-on-a-tray I remember. To combat the growing obesity epidemic, and to teach children valuable lessons about health and nutrition, we need more innovative school-lunch programs like these.