FoodCorps service member Sarah Rubin, working with CitySprouts in Gloucester, Massachusetts, shares a first-hand report of what she and other service members are doing to help America's kids eat better.
It was a cold February morning at Veterans’ Memorial Elementary, and I stood in the school kitchen with both my gloved hands submerged in a five-gallon bucket of cubed pickles. I grabbed them from the briny depths by the fistful and deposited them in a cluster of neatly arranged, four-ounce cups. Nearby, my colleagues Erin and Grace chopped pickled daikon radishes into bite-sized coins. It was Pickle Pioneer Day, an event of our own creation, and we were hustling to prepare samples for the entire student body before lunchtime.
Pickle Pioneer Day is one of several cafeteria events my FoodCorps colleagues and I have coordinated at Veterans’ and Beeman Memorial Elementary Schools this spring. During these themed, monthly celebrations, we decorate the cafeteria, prepare samples of nutritious, kid-friendly foods, and encourage the students to have a taste. As FoodCorps service members who build school gardens and coordinate nutrition education, we believe that both the garden and the cafeteria are an extension of the classroom. Certainly, over the past few months we’ve discovered that school lunch presents an array of teachable moments that can lead to healthier choices.
The overarching theme we chose for our cafeteria event series was "adventurous eating." By framing each event as an adventure, we hope to acknowledge that trying new foods requires courage and spunk. During these festivities, we like to use our imagination to transform cafeteria staff into ‘super cooks’ and students into superheroes.
Take, for example, Pickle Pioneer Day. The cucumber pickles were familiar enough, but the pickled daikon radish required young eaters to step outside their comfort zones. We rewarded those brave enough to sample both pickles with a ‘Pickle Pioneer’ sticker, and let them vote for their favorite of the two at the end of their lunch period. Similarly, during our Dip Daredevil Day, we offered kid-friendly salsa along with a less conventional yogurt and cucumber Tzatziki dip. Again, we polled the kids to determine the favorite – salsa! Soon, with the help of the cafeteria staff, the veggie-rich salsa was a regular item on the school lunch menu.
An additional program objective is the involvement of students’ families in the conversation about eating well. We recognize that students’ eating habits at home may inform their willingness or reluctance to try the healthier options being introduced into school lunch, and vice versa. To this end, we create themed placemats for each event that we send home with the kids at the end of the school day. Each placemat has a cartoon image for them to color in, a simple recipe, and a section called “Cooking up Conversation,” which includes a series of questions meant to prompt mealtime communication between students and their families.
Of course, these lunchtime festivities are about more than placemats, stickers, and fun themes. Our events, at their core, are about building trust, creating a safe environment, and starting a dialogue about food. The process has taken time, but over the last few months our small team has gained credibility. The students know now that "healthy" doesn’t always equate to "unappetizing," a triumph in and of itself. They can also see that we genuinely want them to feel good about eating what we prepare. We’ve made an effort to really listen to the kids’ feedback. On Brain Food Day, when we prepared grapes and chopped mint, a few kids shared stories about loved ones who grow those ingredients. On Dip Daredevil Day, a number of adventurous students proudly asserted that their favorite dip was actually a combination of the two we had offered, which they had claimed as their own creation.
Change can’t happen overnight. It takes time to create an attitude shift, especially when it comes to something as emotionally charged as food. Some students still leave the veggies and whole grains on their tray untouched, instead fixing their attention on their bag of chips. But when I sit down to lunch with the kids, I see progress. I notice a few second graders sticking straws in fresh oranges to extract the juice, and some fourth graders garnishing their pizza with spinach leaves. One day, a kindergartner proudly showed me the veggies and fruits in her lunch box. “Grapes are my favorite,” she told me. And I feel relieved, because I know that these kids are not just ordinary elementary school students but superheroes in disguise. They are Pickle Pioneers and Dip Daredevils on a mission to eat food that is as exciting to their palates as it is healthy for their bodies. They just don’t know it yet.