By John Lynds
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s changes to the guidelines for school meals served in the U.S. reconfirmed what EastBoston based Project Bread has been saying all along through pilot programs in Boston schools–including the Mario Umana Middle School Academy in East Boston–that kids need more healthy options.
So when Secretary Vilsack presented his updated guidelines as part of the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010,” the Board and staff members at Project Bread gave him a standing ovation.
The proposed changes, which include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, are especially important for the state’s low-income schoolchildren because healthy school meals are the single most effective way to protect them from hunger and boost their health.
“We’ve recognized the critical importance of healthy school meals for the past five years and we’ve put that knowledge into action in low-income Massachusetts school districts,” said Ellen Parker, executive director of Project Bread. “The Chefs in Schools program, led by our own Chef Kirk Conrad, has demonstrated that healthy school meals can be prepared within budget. The Harvard School of Public Health evaluated the program and gave us an A+.”
The Chefs in Schools Initiative was created through a pioneering collaboration between Project Bread, Mayor Thomas M. Menino, the Boston Public Health Commission, and the Harvard School of Public Health.
In 2006, Project Bread began supporting a professionally trained chef to work directly with staff in the cafeterias of eight low-income Boston schools like the Umana, training them to prepare appealing and cost-effective healthy breakfasts and lunches that met the kid’s taste test.
Over time, Project Bread’s Chef Kirk replaced the high-calorie standards at the Umana with menu options like freshly made soups, fresh spaghetti sauce with multi-grain pasta, and fresh roasted turkey roll-ups, among other healthy items. Chef Kirk is currently bringing these best practices to schools not only in Eastie but in Lawrence and Salem as well.
The Chefs in Schools Initiative is grounded in Project Bread’s mission to protect food-insecure children from hunger. It’s located in schools because the school meal program is a reliable and predictable system that provides a federally reimbursed breakfast and lunch to 300,000 of the most vulnerable children in the Commonwealth. School meals are a primary source of nutrition for low-income children, providing more than 55 percent of their daily caloric intake. And the Chefs in Schools Program links good cooking with real food that kids like to eat.
“In Massachusetts, we have been ahead of the curve,” said Parker. “The truth is that low-income schoolchildren are experiencing a public health crisis. They are at high risk for both hunger and obesity. It’s a big problem, and it’s time we correct it.”
The program has been well received by students, and was even brought into the Boston Arts Academy by high-school students who demanded that “their chef” come with them when they graduated from middle school. It has also been measured once in a rigorous study led by the Harvard School of Public Health, proving that children will eat healthy, well-presented food that’s also good for them.
“We’ve got everything we need to take this statewide: the recipes, the training techniques, the kids’ approval, and an evaluation that reinforces our vision of the value of good food served at school,” said Parker. “Now we have Vilsack’s recommendations.
Parker said that Project Bread was especially heartened that Vilsack’s guidelines challenge the argument that good food costs too much.
As part of his recommendations Vilsack asked schools to become more creative in looking at their budgets.
“Based on our experience over the past five years, we know that financial opportunities exist in schools and feel it’s time to identify cost inefficiencies and invest that money in the health of our children.” said Parker.
Project Bread has called for all Vilsack’s guidelines to be put into practice both in schools with self-operated kitchens and in schools where the meals are prepared and brought in.
“No child should be left out: because school is the very best place for the 300,000 low-income students in Massachusetts to eat two healthy meals a day,” said Parker. “These Massachusetts children, and their families, desperately need the help – it’s their turn to get it.”