Is pizza a vegetable? Lessons from the fight to change the way America's school kids eat lunch

Published: Monday, Jan. 2 2012 11:00 p.m. MST

Fourth-grader Chandler Karcich serves fruit and vegetables at Amelia Earhart Elementary School in Provo. The school has tried many initiatives to improve school lunches.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

"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.

New regulations

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.

Try out the new DeseretNews.com design!
try beta learn more
Get The Deseret News Everywhere