"I tripped," the girl with the pink bow explained.
The roll had gone flying and was now lying placidly under the table in the Provo school cafeteria. Carrots had spilled in every direction. Luckily the milk carton, unopened, remained intact. When Araseli Varela went back up to the lunch line to refill her little blue tray, she knew exactly what she wanted.
"More jicama, please!"
A single pale stick of Araseli's favorite root vegetable was added to a gleaming pile of orange carrots. Ginger, the fourth-grader in charge of serving that day, was clearly skeptical that jicama would be Araseli's vegetable of choice.
But it's Ginger's job to make sure every student has the option. She stands on her stool in a white pointed hat, behind the low silver counter and palms a chunk of pineapple, dewy and cold, and a few strawberries in one small gloved hand.
As each student slides to her station she plops the fruit on each tray. Then she peeks her auburn head beneath the overhang and asks, "Would you like some vegetables?"
Many of the students shake their heads and turn away. But the cafeteria workers at Amelia Earhart Elementary, and all over Provo School District, are adamant that some kind of plant — fruit or vegetable (preferably fresh) — will arrive squarely on the tray of every student receiving lunch. Every day.
Provo's lunch ladies are riding the wave of a nationwide trend. New regulations for school lunches, which are funded by the federal government, were proposed by the United States Department of Agriculture last month and will be officially announced in January. The new rules are based on recommendations from the National Academies' Institute of Medicine, and may take effect as early as July.
But not only are lunches themselves changing; who eats them is also in flux. A lot more students — in Provo, in Utah, and all over the country — are going to be affected by the new regulations than ever before. In an age of recession, when parents are losing jobs and homes, millions more children qualify for the free and reduced-price lunches the government provides when the families cannot.
The question remains, how will child nutrition programs grapple with these two transformations in tandem? How will the lunch ladies of 2012 feed more kids, and how will they feed them better?
Healthy and homemade
As fourth, fifth and sixth graders slowly fill their assigned tables at Amelia Earhart, the room descends into the comfortable chaos of elementary lunchtime chatter.
Behind the stainless steel counters of the kitchen, the school's cafeteria workers are busy in floral scrub shirts, cooking, setting out and serving, washing dishes, and overseeing their 4th grade helpers.
Kitchen manager Stacy Halladay has been doing this at Amelia Earhart for the last fifteen years. "We've been doing it for a while now," she explains of the district-wide rule that each child must choose either a fruit or vegetable to add to their lunch. Every bread item, from rolls to breadsticks, is whole grain. Cafeteria workers use brown rice. Many entrees, like lasagna, spaghetti, and the much-vaunted Utah favorite "Hawaiian haystacks," are made from scratch, on site.
The changes in Provo are gaining recognition statewide: a poster on one of the cafeteria walls proclaims the district's nutrition program has won 'best of state' two years running.
But not every district in the country or the state has a cafeteria like Amelia Earhart's. Far from it. In fact, the USDA's recent proposals came about because schools nationwide, by January of this year, were not yet living up to the "Dietary Guidelines for Americans," required by the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Program and set forth in 2005. In the overview of their proposals, the USDA wrote that their implementation "would result in more nutritious school meals that improve the dietary habits of school children and protect their health."
Melissa Waters, assistant director of Child Nutrition for the state of Utah, wrote in an email that while the new regulations are not yet set in stone, "we anticipate that servings of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains will increase."
That was not the end of the story, however. Controversy arose in November when Congress reviewed the USDA's proposals and rejected some of them: most notably one which would have limited starchy vegetables — code for potatoes — and one which would have increased the amount of tomato paste that qualifies as a vegetable.
The rejections were met with contempt and mockery in the press. "Congress says pizza is a vegetable!" columnists blared. The popular comedy show "Saturday Night Live" even featured the story, including a special appearance by a skeptical and frustrated Kermit the Frog.
Part of the equation, inevitably, comes down to money. It is estimated that the USDA proposals will cost the government an estimated $6.8 billion over five years, about 14 cents per lunch. Potatoes are cheap, opponents of the proposal argued, and overhauling the program will only add to expenses.
And in the meantime, millions more children are qualifying for lunches at reduced prices, or more commonly, for free. The National School Lunch Program, which has been around in one iteration or another since 1946, is now serving over 31 million students, two-thirds of whom qualify for a free or reduced meal, which costs 40 cents.
This trend is playing out everywhere. Even in Utah, a state hit less hard than most by the recession, the number of students eating free school lunches has risen steadily in the last several years. About 15.9 million lunches were free in Utah for the 2007 fiscal year; by 2010, the number had jumped by more than 5 million.
Amelia Earhart Elementary has seen its free lunch numbers double since 2007; as of October 31st of 2011, more than sixty percent of students attending AEE qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
"Our school community has been affected pretty drastically," says AEE principal Jason Cox.
For some, these numbers only serve to bring home the importance of the program, and the social good it provides. But child nutrition administrators are also concerned with how they will afford to follow the new guidelines and keep up with demand. Challenges continue to present themselves.
The cost of carrots
The federal government reimburses the district's nutrition program for each free and reduced meal, and even a small amount for full-price ones, according to Jenilee McComb, child nutrition director for Provo school district. In her seventh year on the job, McComb is the woman behind the push for more fruits and vegetables in her district.
"We just know that it's better for students," she said, of including fresh produce in her menus. She explained that the federal government dispenses a dollar amount towards commodities to fund student meals to every school district, determined by size. Provo gets about $280,000. McComb determines how the money is split up: how much goes to canned items, to meats, to fruits and vegetables.
McComb said she has already spent about $124,000 of her budget on fresh produce. She has also applied for further federal grants, one from the Department of Defense to supplement breakfast and lunch, and will again apply to the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program to provide nutritious snacks for her schools.
And while McComb is enthusiastic about the avenues for federal funding available, she concedes that the new regulations — which emphasize the daily availability and primacy of fruits and vegetables (preferably fresh) — will not come cheap.
"I'm sure it'll cost more," she said. Kelly Orton agrees. Orton is the co-chair of the Utah branch of the nationwide organization Take Action for Healthy Kids. He also works as director of health and nutrition for Salt Lake school district. The new regulations, he said, will "increase our cost tremendously."
He reported that his district spent just over $500,000 last school year on fresh produce alone. But as of last month, according to Orton, the district had already matched that figure, and expects to spend more than $1 million on fresh fruits and vegetables by June. "Fresh fruits and vegetables are a market-driven commodity," he says. Their prices vary seasonally and can be costly, especially in the winter months.
Both directors emphasized the unique predicament of child nutrition programs: because their funding comes from the federal government, they receive no financial support from their districts.
"We have to stay within our budget," said Orton. "We can't have school districts and local taxpayers subsidize the program."
"All our funding and all our money…we're on our own that way," agreed McComb. "Plus, we maintain all our own equipment. Everything that we do in any district, we have to manage so carefully."
But Orton and McComb also mentioned one way in which Utah nutrition programs are at a distinct advantage: the state's liquor tax provides subsidies directly to school lunch. In the 2010 fiscal year alone, the liquor tax sent $27.9 million into Utah's child nutrition coffers.
"I'm not sure if this is the right word, but (the liquor tax) is a huge blessing in our program…It helps to have more funding to serve these kind of meals," said McComb.
But will they eat it?
Child nutrition directors nationwide are, in this period of transition, grappling with new regulations and increased student demand. But they also deal with the age-old program that a program's success hinges on: how do you get a kid to eat what you want him to? How do you translate the idea of healthy lunches into food that students will actually accept?
Orton takes a pragmatic view: "It really comes down to what the children will eat. Otherwise it doesn't do any good."
Strategies vary from concealment to determination to bribery. In Salt Lake and Jordan school districts, pizza is served — but with whole-grain crust and low-fat cheese. These facts are not shared with the consumers. "We don't go out and advertise the whole grain crust," Orton said.
Jenilee McComb, director of child nutrition for Provo school district, favors a straightforward approach: "Anything you can name, I can promise you we've tried it. Once we've tried it, then it becomes part of our menu."
McComb reports that the introduction of chayote squash, for example, was met with total bewilderment at first. Now, apparently, "they're liking it. That's been fun."
In preparing their students for the new regulations, cafeteria workers at AEE agree that getting the kids excited about vegetables is "definitely" the hardest. "We're trying to get them used to it," lunch lady Jennifer Olivas said. "They need the fruits and vegetables to sustain them until the end of the day."
Fruit, overall, has been met with appreciation. Halladay names grapes, strawberries and kiwis as primary student favorites. And AEE last year participated in a creative approach to the vegetable problem: bribery.
Brigham Young University students visited the cafeteria every day for three weeks at a time, standing where every child dropped of his or her tray. If their fruit or vegetable serving had been eaten, they received a quarter. The college students were curious if one coin would be enough motivation to eat the less popular items. According to Cox, it was.
The BYU students have come back this year occasionally to monitor students' attitudes toward their food. But AEE has a daily system in place as well, in the form of instructional aide Brigitte Wilson.
As the lunch hour draws to a close, hands are popping up all over the cafeteria. Wilson goes to each in turn: their tray must be approved (and emptier than it began) before a student can be excused. Wilson is pleasant but firm, giving the okay only when students have eaten at least one-third (ideally one-half) of what they've been given, tried everything, and drunk every last drop of milk.
Wilson moves briskly through the room, repeating a familiar refrain: "How many bites have you had? How many bites can you eat?"
"Everyone is learning to eat," Wilson said. The students that have a hard time at lunch also have a hard time in their classes afterward. Wilson noted focus and behavioral problems from students who left more on their trays.
For Wilson, the necessity of eating lunch extends beyond classroom performance, however: "Some of the children, this is their only real meal of the day. So that's why it's important," she said.
Feeding the future
Like Wilson, McComb sees the primary role of the programs she sees as a way to care for children whose minds and bodies are growing. Despite the costs, she is enthusiastic about the USDA's new regulations.
"I absolutely do think they're great regulations," she said. "So we'll do the best we can…I think serving healthy meals is so important. It just feeds their little minds so they can learn. I also think it's our responsibility to support a healthy lifestyle."20 comments on this story
Principal Cox agreed. "I think that the whole initiative with Mrs. Obama wanting the children of America to be more healthy has had an impact on our lunch program. I think that's something that as a school district we've really tried to be aware of."
The district's motto, displayed proudly on the "Best in State" poster hanging in the AEE cafeteria, is "Nourishing our children's future!"
McComb is committed to the cause, for every child in her district. "I totally, totally believe in this program," she said. "I'm grateful that there's a program like this so that every child has an equal opportunity to learn in school."