It’s been 10 years since Napoleon Dynamite stuffed his cargo pants full of tater tots in his high school cafeteria in the movie by the same name. Tots have been a cafeteria staple for, what seems like, as long as school lunch has existed, along with mac ‘n’ cheese, pizza, mystery meat and other creamy, cheesy, often unidentifiable dishes.
While these lunches, in the best cases, appeal to students’ taste buds as comfort food, numerous studies and reports of late have revealed that traditional school lunches are not only lacking in nutrition but also contribute to obesity and hinder students’ performance in the classroom. And while the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” will remain timelessly quirky and hilarious, its namesake’s favorite cafeteria snack is quickly becoming a relic as a result of this research and new legislation such as the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act (2010).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In fact, in 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents in the United States were overweight or obese.
“The wide availability of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor foods such as tater tots and chicken nuggets, this is what has led to the obesity epidemic in the U.S.,” said Dr. Dennis Lipton, an internist at Vail Valley Medical Center whose personal focus lies in fitness and plant-based nutrition. “When taste buds get accustomed to food that is so high in salt, fat and sugar, we learn to prefer these types of foods. It makes healthier, natural food seem bland and unappetizing by comparison. Then kids say things like, ‘I just don’t like vegetables.’”
The CDC also reports on research that shows the lack of adequate consumption of specific foods, such as fruits, vegetables or dairy products, is associated with lower grades among students. And deficits of specific nutrients (i.e., vitamins A, B6, B12, C, folate, iron, zinc and calcium) are associated with lower grades and higher rates of absenteeism and tardiness among students.
“The types of food traditionally found in school lunches are highly processed so they have a long shelf life and are easy to prepare and serve,” Lipton said. “They have no naturally occurring fiber, vitamins, or phytonutrients, which are found only in fruits and vegetables, and are essential for optimal health.”
For Michael Imperi, headmaster at Vail Mountain School, these facts and research were compelling enough to inspire him to make some changes at VMS.
“Great schools, like VMS, are analyzing research data on student health outcomes and integrating health education into school improvement plans,” Imperi said. “We know that healthy eating habits and an in-depth knowledge of good nutrition go a long way toward improving our students’ overall well being.”
‘Getting kids excited about the garden’
Last school year, Imperi and members of his team, including science teachers Gabrielle Scherzer and James Mill and Parent Partners co-chair, Christina Lautenberg, came together on a project that they expect will take both nutrition and education at VMS to a new level.
The project is an on-site greenhouse, designed by Bill Pierce Architects, which is making its debut for the 2014-15 school year. The greenhouse will immediately become part of the K-12 curriculum, teaching lessons about both science and nutrition. Eventually, it will be the source of garden-to-table lunches.
“Everything is going to be edible to start,” said Scherzer. “Everything is going to be food-based. It’s not an ornamental greenhouse. Even this year alone … every kid will plant a seed and get to harvest it and eat it.”
And while the greenhouse isn’t expected to produce enough food to feed students and staff this year, Scherzer expects it to immediately be a great learning tool.
“This is a multi-step process,” said Scherzer. “I really think this year is about getting kids excited about the garden and excited about the table. … The goal this year is figuring out what gets the kids excited, how to get their hands dirty and also to teach them about global citizenship and the business of growing food and how they can bring the tools they learn here out into the world.”
In addition to the greenhouse, VMS also recently hired a new catering company, Sage Dining Services, to help longtime VMS chef Forest Knapp take the lunch menu to new heights.
“By any school standard, we’ve always had a great school lunch program,” Imperi said. “What’s changing is that we’ve now brought in the buying power of a national boutique company. They’re very, very nutritionally based and very focused on the buy-local concept.”
Sage’s menus focus on variety in addition to locally grown, organic and nutrient-rich meals; students will see everything from fish tacos to a barbecue pulled pork shoulder sandwich. And every lunch includes two hot entree options, a salad bar, two different soups and a deli station, complete with a panini press, giving students options and teaching them both to try new foods and to make smart eating choices on their own.
Sage’s online menu features information on the ingredients, nutritional value and allergens for each menu item, helping parents and students alike decide which options are the best for them.
Scratch cooking at school
VMS isn’t the only school making changes for the better when it comes to student health and wellness, the Eagle County Schools’ Fresh Approach program, which features whole food entrees, lots of fruits and veggies and breakfast in several elementary schools, is active in all of the schools in the district.
“It’s a very simple program,” said Ray Edel, the district’s director of food and nutrition services. “All of the entrees are made from scratch. We have unlimited self-service fruit and veggie bars, use as many whole-wheat products as possible and serve synthetic hormone-free milk. We also eliminated all snacks of little-to-no nutrition.”
It all started about four years ago when members of the school district were working with a group of parents on creating a student wellness plan. Edel and Tony Cardona, executive chef and operations manager, both attended LiveWell Colorado’s Culinary Bootcamps, school food culinary training programs exploring the methods needed to transition school programs to scratch cooking. In total, the LiveWell chefs have spent over 400 hours in Eagle Count Schools kitchens, training the local staff.
It’s important to note, said Edel, that the Fresh Approach program was implemented ahead of the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which calls for a 10-year implementation program.
“Lucky for us, it hasn’t had much impact on us as far as food goes,” Edel said. “We were already ahead of the act and really didn’t have to make many changes at all. Now it’s just a matter of completing all of the paperwork necessary to get the funding.”
“We’re one of the leaders in the industry, let alone the state with this initiative,” Edel said. “Colorado is one of the leading states in general and Eagle County was one of the first school districts in the country to start implementing these changes early.”
A sample menu for a local elementary school lunch in Eagle County might look like this: Asian chicken with brown rice, milk and unlimited trips to the self-serve fruit and veggie bar, with the alternative option being the salad bar. And even though there are no tater tots on the menu, Edel says the students’ reaction to the menu changes has been positive.
“We’ve received extremely positive feedback from the elementary school students and their parents,” he said. “The high school kids are the ones that miss chicken nuggets and tater tots, but this is really the norm now and participation rates are going up and up, and the feedback is better every year.”