Fresh Food for Kids? Why Not!

School cafeterias have come to be known for chicken nuggets and other foods that arrive pre-made, frozen and with a long list of unpronounceable ingredients. But as child obesity rates reach alarming levels, the idea of providing fresh, healthy food to schoolchildren is gaining steam.

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The Need for Fresh Food in Schools

There are several factors behind the obesity problem in the United States, but poor eating habits is among the most significant. Too often, the foods kids eat at school contribute to making them overweight. That's starting to change as schools recognize the importance of providing healthy, natural food. This means making food from scratch rather than reheating food that arrived frozen and loaded with preservatives.

kids lunch box

Preparing fresh food in schools offers a variety of benefits. First, students who eat healthier foods are less likely to suffer from obesity and its myriad complications, such as diabetes and low self-esteem. Fresh food also contains fewer unnatural ingredients than many prepackaged foods, which cuts the number of potentially dangerous chemicals that kids will ingest. Furthermore, schools can benefit from huge federal discounts on fresh meat and other products, savings that are lost when food is bought from a processing plant.

Built to Reheat

The biggest challenge in convincing schools to shift to fresh food revolves around money. Yet organizations like Cook for America work with schools to analyze their food service operations and provide guidance on how to improve what they offer when budgets are tight. Often, schools discover through an assessment that they can operate at a lower cost through savings on food costs and staffing levels.

While fresh food can save money once a new system is up and running, a major obstacle some schools face is making the transition. Many schools have adjusted to the unhealthy food model by building large freezers and small kitchens. They may have facilities that are designed primarily to reheat food, not to prep dishes from scratch. Fortunately, there are schools that have demonstrated how to reconfigure kitchens without breaking the bank.

Colorado Leads the Way

The New York Times recently profiled the efforts of schools in Greeley, Colorado to repurpose their school kitchens. With 60% of its students qualifying for free or reduced-cost meals, Greeley is not a wealthy city. Yet the Colorado Health Foundation, a local nonprofit, provided $273,000 in grants that covered over 75% of construction and equipment costs for the remodeling of their kitchens.

Now, students in these schools will be eating bean burritos that contain just 12 ingredients, compared to the 35 ingredients in the factory-made burritos of previous years. Likewise, their Italian salad dressing will contain no sugar, three-fourths less sodium and ten fewer overall ingredients than before. Schools in Greeley are going further, too, by sneaking healthy foods into unexpected places, such as carrots in the pasta sauce.

The cooks from Greeley's school comprise one of approximately 100 groups to train with Cook for America. Over half of these groups come from Colorado, which leads the nation with the lowest obesity rate. The hope is that Greeley's students, as with students elsewhere, will take their healthy eating habits home. Learning how to eat well may be one of the most important and long-lasting lessons schools can teach.

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