The Namaste Way: Placing a Premium on School Food

March 19, 2015

Namaste Charter School serves up fresh, healthy food — and the students eat it up.

Namaste Charter School on Chicago’s southwest side embodies so many of the issues that are important to creating and maintaining a healthy school environment, including healthy school food, regular physical activity and parent engagement. A visit to the school is a visit to a world where students get the nutrition, activity and support they need to succeed — in school and in life — and it works! During the next several weeks, we’ll take a deep dive into some of Namaste’s successes with getting students to eat unflavored yogurt and drink plenty of water, ongoing professional development for staff and engaging parents. Click here to see all of the posts in the series.

At 7:45 a.m. every morning, students file into Namaste Charter School’s kitchen. They’re greeted by a yogurt or oatmeal bar, but not the kind most kids think of. The yogurt is completely free of artificial flavorings and colorings and the oatmeal is unsweetened. And the kids gobble it up.

How does Namaste get students to eat this food?

Founder and executive director Allison Slade shrugs off the question. “If you give them healthy options, they will eat it,” she says. Giving them the power to add their own toppings — fresh fruit, cinnamon and coconut — helps the students feel in control and appreciate the food, she says.

But they don’t gobble up every item placed on their tray. Slade — who eats breakfast and lunch at the school almost every day — loves steamed spinach, but the kids were less than thrilled with the texture. So, the kitchen staff prepared spinach three different ways, and the kids were able to taste all three and vote for their favorite. The winner: spinach salad with dried cranberries and raspberry vinaigrette.

And it’s not just the meals prepared and served by Namaste’s staff that adhere to strict nutritional standards. Meals brought from home are checked by lunchroom helpers to ensure they’re healthy.

Items that don’t comply with the school’s nutrition standards are sent home with the students, along with a note home explaining why the items aren’t the best choice for school lunch. This interaction — though small — is just one way Namaste is helping educate parents about making healthy choices. At Namaste, this type of interaction has become a part of school culture and serves as a way to help families support their children.

Participating in the school lunch program has become part of the school culture as well – even for many teachers. The school has a lunch participation rate of 90-95 percent. Slade also estimates 50-80 percent of the school’s teachers also eat lunch in the cafeteria on a daily basis.

Namaste prioritizes quality food so much so that the school spends a premium on its food, about 46 cents more than what the school gets reimbursed per lunch. Each lunch at Namaste costs the school $3.36, and the USDA and Illinois State Board of Education reimburses about $2.85 per lunch, Slade estimates.

The hard work is paying off. Namaste was the second school in the Midwest to receive the USDA’s Gold Award of Distinction for meeting healthy school meal standards.