School Meals Matter

January 10, 2012

Today, we are pleased to share a piece by Louise Esaian, director of logistics and head of school nutrition for Chicago Public Schools. This story was recently featured as part of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s annual report.

In Chicago, HSC supports the district’s efforts to make healthy school food a priority; we’ve been honored to work with Louise as she and her team have made great strides for school meals in one of the nation’s largest school districts. Thanks to Louise and to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for sharing this story!

I don’t see school meals as a problem; I see them as an opportunity.

When I took a position five years ago at the helm of the Chicago Public Schools Nutrition Support Services, I didn’t discount anything previous leaders had accomplished and I didn’t attempt to go it alone. Early in my tenure, I partnered with the Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC). HSC was already advocating for revitalized school meals, increased opportunities for physical activity and healthy school environments.

With HSC, we worked to leverage existing relationships with parents and school administrators as we began, quietly, to make small changes to the 160,000 breakfasts and 280,000 lunches we serve each day. We switched to nonfat milk. We began offering fresh fruit every day as an option. We removed deep-fat fryers from our kitchens. Beyond these quick fixes, it became a challenge to stay within our means, but we kept going. We placed limits on juice at breakfast; we stopped using canned vegetables; we increased servings of whole grains and fiber; we eliminated trans fats and we introduced salad bars.

Yet I’ve come to realize that food is only one part of the equation. If we’re not educating students about healthy eating, we’ve lost an opportunity to build on what we started in the cafeteria. So I brought on a district-wide manager of health and wellness; we’ve begun identifying a wellness champion at each school; and we require schools requesting a salad bar to offer nutrition education in the classroom.

This year we introduced the Breakfast in the Classroom program, which offers all elementary students, regardless of their families’ income, a free breakfast when they arrive at school. A parent wrote recently to say, “My son feels healthier during the day and has a lot more energy because of this program.” But my favorite comment came from one little boy who told me he liked breakfast in the classroom because he enjoyed the quiet time of everyone eating together. I thought that was a remarkable insight coming from a child.

One of the most successful and gratifying programs we’ve participated in with HSC is Cooking up Change, an annual contest in which teams of high school students compete to create a healthy school meal. The meals have to meet our nutritional standards, use ingredients from our list, have no more than six preparation steps and cost a dollar or less per serving for ingredients. The winning team serves its meal to the mayor, city hall and the school board, and the meal is served in cafeterias throughout our school district. This year’s winning team prepared bone-in chicken, rolled in flour and crushed Rice Krispies and baked, along with a sweet potato salad and a side dish of cabbage and kale they called Cousins.

The winner from two years ago – chicken jambalaya with jalapeno cornbread and cucumber salad – is still on the menu. Students talk about the winners, word gets around. This is how change happens.
The Chicago Public Schools Nutrition Support Services (CPS-NSS) aims to provide all students in the nation’s third largest school district with nutritious, appetizing meals that contribute to their success in the learning environment. Its “Go for the Gold” initiative in partnership with the Healthy Schools Campaign (a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grantee) will help it meet the highest standard of the USDA’s “HealthierUS” School Challenge.

Congratulations to Louise and Chicago Public Schools Nutrition Support Services on these milestones for healthy school food! To see the  W.K. Kellogg’s entire annual report, click here