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Feeding our children: St. Louis may provide blueprint for better school lunch
ST. LOUIS, MO. — For school districts looking at ways to increase healthy school food, the St. Louis Public School District could be a model.
Last October, the district earned a "most improved" mention in the annual school lunch report card from the non-profit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
The PCRM report card evaluated surveys from 22 food service directors across the country, determining if they met minimum nutrition requirements, made healthy vegetarian options available, provided low-fat, low-calorie food with essential vitamins and minerals and paired nutrition education and new initiatives to food service.
Schools are assigned points – scoring 100 means getting an "A+."
In 2007, St. Louis Public Schools received an "F" on the PCRM's report card, coming in dead last out of 22 school systems. PCRM noted the SLPS menu was "heavy with high-fat, heat-and-serve items such as chicken corn dogs, fish sticks and pizza."
The committee also noted the absence of nutritional education in SLPS food service.
Five years later, PCRM awarded SLPS with an "A" grade, giving it 95 points.
SLPS Food Services Director Althea Albert-Santiago is justifiably pleased with the district's improvement over the past few years.
Receiving a failing grade from PCRM in 2007 prompted the district to focus on changing the way it treated school food.
Firstly, SLPS switched food service companies it contracts with to provide school food, removed deep fryers from its lunchrooms and started adding healthy options to its menus.
Now, Albert-Santiago says, the district offers vegetarian entrée every day and has switched to whole grain breads. Vegetables, fruit and legumes feature prominently on school menus.
To improve selection, the district reaches out to students for menu feedback with a yearly survey, Albert-Santiago explains. At the high school level, SLPS formed focus groups to get recommendations.
Albert-Santiago admits it's taken some time to get used to the changes – students, particularly those not used to a vegetable-heavy diet, have been somewhat wary of the new school food.
SLPS' food service initiatives have eased that transition, Albert-Santiago says. She believes the new programs are really what caught PCRM's eye.
Since 2007, SLPS has started a farm-to-school program that brings produce like eggplant, kale, zucchini and sweet potatoes from local producers to lunchrooms.
According to PCRM, the program provided 60,000 pounds of local produce to SLPS last year.
Additionally, there are now school gardens in 22 SLPS schools, and 20 elementary schools participate in the USDA fresh fruit and vegetable program.
SLPS also invited restaurant chefs to elementary school lunchrooms to design menus and offer cooking demonstrations to students. Albert-Santiago hopes to extend the program to high and middle schools in the future.
The district also started switching to on-site food production in more elementary schools, in order to provide fresher options.
Although a lot has changed, there is still plenty of room for improvement, Albert-Santiago says.
Less healthy à la carte options are still available district-wide and vending machines for snacks and soft drinks remain in high- and middle-school hallways, although Albert-Santiago says SLPS is contemplating restricting their use and including healthier options.
Challenges remain, but it's hard to deny that SLPS has made significant progress in the past five years.
"We're very proud of what we're doing," Albert-Santiago says.
"We have a long way to go before I can say 'we have made it', but I think we've really impressed the community to help us go further."
For some in Oxford Hills, the changes made by St. Louis, particularly its programmatic initiatives, are attractive.
SAD 17 School Health Coordinator Pat Carson says the district is moving in the right direction, but still has a lot of work to do – boosting a connection between school food and nutrition education is crucial for students' brain development, in his view.
"To me it comes down to ... how important both physical activity and nutrition really can be, especially impacting health and student learning," Carson says.
He agrees that a contradiction exists between encouraging students to eat healthier food and continuing to provide less healthy "competitive foods" and à la carte options.
"I don't know too many kids who willingly make that decision, unless it's been engrained for many number of years and it's become part of their culture and their way of life."
That's why improving education programs is so important, Carson says – and why the transformation needs to be a community effort.
Carson acknowledges some don't agree that limited school resources should be spent on nutrition and wellness programs.
That criticism, however, is outdated, Carson says – it doesn't take into account the changing role of school districts from pure education to providing social services to students.
Schools play a crucial role in nutrition, especially for those students eligible for free/reduced lunch, Carson says – if a significant proportion of a students' meals are provided by schools, nutrition and health should be a key concern.
Highlighting student nutrition and wellness isn't just important for immediate health, Carson says. Learning those habits can also help prepare students for careers in an environment where employers are looking to curb health care costs.
"If we're really going to be producing kids ready for the work world, we've got to produce kids who make good decisions about their health and who are going to be at the top of the line for some of those jobs," Carson says.
Editor's Note: This is the last of a multi-part series on school food.