Student Reactions to New, Healthy Menus: Behind the Headlines

February 24, 2011 | Written By:

by Rochelle Davis, HSC President and CEO

The Chicago Tribune recently featured an article, “You can lead kids to broccoli, but you can’t make them eat,” discussing the challenges that Chicago Public Schools (CPS) faces in student reactions to the new, healthier school lunch menus the district debuted this year. As the article notes, CPS has established new nutrition guidelines for school food that exceed existing national standards and include many similarities to the improved national standards recently proposed by the USDA for all schools.

Helping students adjust to the new menus is a real challenge; CPS and its partners must continue the effort to ensure that students adjust to the new, healthy options. The lessons CPS learns from this ongoing effort will have implications nationwide. In committing to provide students with healthier school food today, CPS is serving as a national leader, taking on challenges — and pioneering solutions — to prioritize student health. This leadership is commendable, and is especially critical in light of the childhood obesity epidemic and the significant health disparities that the district’s low-income and minority students face.

Research backs up what parents know about healthy eating: that kids don’t always immediately embrace healthy options. But we also know that a multi-faceted approach of presenting new foods and engaging students in lessons about healthy eating can make a tremendous difference for kids’ health in the long term. This means modeling healthy behaviors in the classroom, creating multiple opportunities for students to try new foods, adjusting recipes based on feedback and making nutrition education a normal part of the school experience.

At Healthy Schools Campaign, we are thrilled to see that CPS is taking steps to ensure that its new, healthy menus are ultimately successful. We see CPS adjusting menus based on student input, and making student-designed meals from the Cooking up Change healthy cooking contest a regular part of the menu. We see school nutrition staff attending training to develop culinary skills that weren’t necessary with more processed food. To address the need for kitchen equipment that supports the new menus, CPS received a one-time grant from the federal government.

This year, we partnered with CPS to launch Go for the Gold, a citywide effort to support schools in meeting high standards for nutrition education and physical activity as well as school food. This effort has brought chefs, parents, principals and many others together to begin creating a culture of wellness and healthy eating in schools. Go for the Gold offers opportunities for leaders across our communities to get involved: we encourage you to join the effort.

On a specific note, Eng points out the challenges of serving appealing meals while dramatically reducing sodium content. According to the Institute of Medicine, excessive sodium consumption leads to nearly 100,000 deaths every year. This is why the new proposed nutrition standards from the USDA call for a significant reduction in sodium levels in school lunches over the next 10 years. CPS has started reducing its use of sodium now, before the USDA requires it and before food manufacturers are formulating new products that would make this transition easier. We have seen CPS introduce a number of non-salt seasonings to provide flavor without compromising student health. Yet having students adjust to lunch items with less sodium remains a real challenge, one that will require creative, ongoing effort from CPS and its partners. The lessons that CPS learns from this transition will have valuable implications for schools across the U.S. as we all adjust to eating less salt.

Launching a healthy new school food program is an incredibly challenging yet incredibly important undertaking, one that will not be complete in a single school year. We applaud CPS for its national leadership in providing a school environment that prioritizes children’s health.

Plus: Check out HSC’s letter to the editor on the Chicago Tribune website.

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