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Wellness Program Spices Up School Lunch Menus

On a recent Friday morning, kindergartners at P.S. 175 in Manhattan busily chopped potatoes with plastic knives on brightly colored cutting boards, as a chef held up a bundle of green vegetables and asked: “Does anybody know what this is?” The children responded in unison, “Broccoli!” The chef, Sara Kartzmer of the New York-based nonprofit Wellness in the Schools, chuckled and said, “It does look a lot like broccoli, but today we’re using parsley.”

Those who answered her questions correctly got to help pour olive oil, vinegar, honey and Dijon mustard into a mixer – part of the day’s lesson on making healthful potato salad. Her goal was to inspire kids to try unfamiliar dishes like this one in the cafeteria. The demonstration is just one of many efforts in schools nationwide aimed at tweaking children’s palates to combat childhood obesity and encourage healthier lifestyles. Though the Wellness in the Schools program began in 2008, many of the other effort across the country were inspired by Michelle Obama’s 2010 Chefs Move to Schools initiative, said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the national nonprofit School Nutrition Association, a group that helps schools provide healthier meals.

Kids chopping potatoes on brightly colored cutting boards.

Kindergarteners at Public School 175 in Manhattan chop potatoes during their cooking lab, one of many ways Wellness in the Schools teaches kids about healthier eating habits. (Photo by Crystal Kang/CNS)

The USDA further fueled the focus on healthier school lunches last year, when it released new standards that call on schools to serve leaner meats, whole-grained breads and pastas, lower sodium meals and fat-free or low-fat milk. Each meal must fit a calorie range based on the child’s grade level. Schools or school districts receive reimbursements – six cents – for every meal served that meets the updated nutrition guidelines.

“Schools are doing a lot of nutrition education,” Pratt-Heavner said. “We’re seeing a lot of chef-inspired recipes and chef-involvement programs. Because kids respond to more creative recipes, it’s important to introduce foods in a way that kids are more willing to try.”

Wellness in the Schools is committed to that philosophy. The group began in 2005, when concerned public school parents rallied around the idea of providing healthier food for their kids. In 2008, the organization partnered with New York City’s Department of Education and began working in three schools in the city. By 2010, it received national recognition from Michelle Obama’s Chefs Move to Schools campaign. Now, 42 schools in New York, Florida and Kentucky use the Wellness in the Schools program. The group is in talks with California, Texas and New Jersey about bringing its program to their schools next year.

Wellness in the Schools has had to tweak its menu to meet the new federal guidelines, standardizing serving sizes and sodium levels. It also has to submit recipes to the government to be sure dishes are approved before introducing them in school cafeterias.

“All recipes we send over need to be tested before they’re accepted as part of the menu,” said Kartzmer, one of the program’s 20 culinary-school graduates working to capture the hearts and stomachs of youngsters through hands-on demonstrations. At times, the effort is an uphill battle, especially because the program’s healthy-eating initiatives are more stringent than those of the federal government’s. On Mondays, Wellness in the Schools’ menus are exclusively vegetarian; on other days, the menu may include poultry but never red meat.

Franky Vasquez, a sixth grader at Public School 206 in Manhattan, said he misses the burgers and fries he used to get in the cafeteria before the Wellness program began. Vasquez, who likes his mom’s asparagus and collard greens, refuses to eat the vegetables in his school’s lunch line. In Vasquez’ words, the cafeteria now has too much “grown-up food” what with the salad bar, whole-grained pasta and organic tofu.

“First I will try it, and if I don’t like it, then I will tell my mom to bring food from home,” said Vasquez. “On Friday, it was grilled chicken with spinach. I didn’t eat it because they served it with spinach. So I waited until I got home to eat lunch.”

Less than a quarter of a mile away, at Public School 112 in Manhattan, Wellness in the Schools has been overseeing lunches for the last three years. It’s taken the children time to get used to the menu there too.

“The first time we had WITS, we had kids throwing out their food,” recalled Maria Diaz, the senior cook, who has been serving at the school for 21 years. Now, students have warmed up to the healthier menu, at least somewhat.

“They like it when I do the rice and beans and roasted chicken,” Diaz said. “They only like pasta if I make it with Italian sauce.”

This year, the program added a new item on its menus – tofu. Some lunchroom staff didn’t know what to do with it, but the program’s chefs created a roasted organic tofu dish served every Wednesday.

“Tofu was also very new for a lot of the children in the schools,” said Ting Chang, the program’s coordinator. “Our chefs were going around passing around tastings and samples and trying to get the kids to try something new.”

Christina Alcivar, the P.S. 206 PTA president, said she used to take her children to fast food restaurants, but the Wellness Program inspired her to cook at home to improve her children’s diet.

“Parents can’t depend solely on healthier school lunches,” Alcivar said. “Good eating habits start from home.”


Email: csk2151@columbia.edu

March 19, 2013