One morning while students are in classes, FoodCorps service member Carly Chaapel inspects the rows of arugula growing outside the Salem County Career and Technical High School cafeteria. Assigned to this New Jersey school as part of AmeriCorps’s program on nutrition and food science, Chaapel has one of the toughest jobs in education—getting teenagers to eat their greens. “I brought the students over to the garden this morning,” she says. Her charges weren’t familiar with arugula. So, “I just picked a leaf and handed it to them, and they tried it.” The verdict? “They said, ‘Oh, that’s not bad. I could put some dressing on that.’ ”
Meanwhile, in the cafeteria, food-services director Mike Aliberti is getting ready for pizza Friday. But this pizza is served with fruit and a side salad, and—shh!—the crust is whole-grain-rich. “Everything’s whole grain,” he says, and gestures to the kids. “They haven’t said a word.”
Chaapel and Aliberti are foot soldiers in the battle against childhood obesity. The statistics are alarming: according to the CDC, the percentage of obese children between the ages of six and 11 rose from 7 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2012. The percentage of obese teenagers likewise rose, from 5 percent to 21 percent. Rates are higher for children living in poverty. In response, schools have been phasing in tough new nutrition standards. Will junking the Tater Tots for arugula make any difference, or is human nature more resistant to change than well-meaning sorts like to believe?
Schools have long been laboratories of social experimentation, for a simple reason: students are a captive audience. Millions of children have been part of the federal government’s food adventures since 1946, when Congress passed the National School Lunch Act. Conceived in an effort to alleviate hunger in schoolchildren, the law wound up creating a market for commodity foods that government subsidies drove America’s farms to overproduce. In the years since, childhood obesity has supplanted hunger as a pediatric health problem—in part, because school lunch programs may have overshot the mark. One study, done a few years ago, found that kids who ate school lunches were 29 percent more likely to be obese than children who brought meals from home.
In 2010, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act marked the first major update to the school lunch program in decades. The law established calorie limits for meals, along with dark-green and red vegetable requirements. Originally, the limits on weekly servings of grains meant that elementary schools couldn’t offer a daily sandwich option. A limit on protein also inspired complaints: a September 2012 YouTube video featured several Kansas students singing “We Are Hungry” to the tune of Fun’s “We Are Young.” The video got more than 1 million hits. The USDA relented—sandwiches are back—but these days, students must take a fruit or vegetable in order for the meal to be reimbursed. Within the next few years, all breads must be whole grain.
Some schools have proactively embraced the idea of healthier meals. In the Provo City School District in Utah, child-nutrition director Jenilee McComb says that even before the USDA changes, “We saw a need to increase fresh fruit and vegetable consumption and had this desire to do more cooking from scratch.” Her Facebook page features mouthwatering photos of turkey noodle soup bursting with brightly colored vegetables. McComb buys from Utah farms whenever possible, an innovation that the USDA is trying to encourage.
“Often with fruits and vegetables, one of the most significant elements adding to the cost is freight and transportation costs,” says Kevin Concannon, who heads the USDA’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services division responsible for school meals. Local purchasing stretches food dollars further. Salad bars are showing up everywhere, and Chaapel’s school garden isn’t unique. FoodCorps service members often plant them. Some private businesses are getting in on the act, too. Revolution Foods has won contracts with districts and charter schools to provide 1 million meals weekly, incorporating foods that don’t use artificial colors or preservatives. Jamba Juice, the mall food-court staple, has reformulated some of its offerings for in-school smoothie machines to provide a kid-friendly way to serve fruit.
Will these changes work? One study found that states with stricter regulations on school meals had less of a gap in obesity rates between children receiving subsidized lunches and higher-income kids than did states with laxer standards. This suggests that healthier school meals can help fight obesity among the children most at risk. But even if healthier school meals benefit poor children, getting the policy right is more complicated than installing a salad bar. When the new regulations went into effect, school-meal participation dropped—primarily among children who had a choice. According to data from the School Nutrition Association, the number of full-price lunches purchased fell by 10.4 percent between the 2011–12 and 2012–13 school years. Kids apparently decided that if their schools were going to make them eat arugula, they would bring potato chips from home instead.
“We’ve looked at participation rates by menu day,” says Angie Gaszak, a nutrition specialist in the Saint Paul, Minnesota, public schools. “On days that we’re offering a turkey hot dog, a cheeseburger, or pizza, those are our higher-participation days.” On the days she serves an adventurous ethnic dish? “Those are our lower-participation days. That’s when the kids with paid lunches are choosing to bring their own lunch.”
This is no different from what adults do—claiming to want healthy food but not eating it. McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson admits that the restaurant chain’s salads make up just 2 percent to 3 percent of sales. And new fast-food offerings such as Taco Bell’s Doritos Locos Taco—made less healthy by putting it in a shell that tastes like a Dorito—have been hits. Subway has done well by branding itself as healthy, but customers tend to load up their subs with cheese and mayonnaise and then order non-diet soda, chips, and chocolate-chip cookies.
School food programs operate on thin margins, so any decline in paid participation is significant. “The key here is volume,” says Dayle Hayes, a registered dietitian and former board member of the American Dietetic Association, who runs the website School Meals That Rock. “Like any other kind of food service, the greater the participation, the more kids who eat with you, the better you are able to do.”
Forced by the USDA to serve healthy fare and squeezed by a dip in customers, nutrition services now have to protect their bottom lines by taking on the thankless job at which millions of parents have failed: persuading children to eat their vegetables. Some are imitating private-sector business strategies for boosting demand. “Marketing and merchandising are everything in our program,” says Provo’s McComb. Children get free samples and stickers for trying healthy new fare. Concannon is optimistic. “I think we can train the palates of kids,” he says.
He may be right. A University of North Carolina study found that in 65 percent of FoodCorps classrooms, where students are planting gardens and tasting arugula, children improved their attitudes toward trying new fruits and vegetables. But the human desire for sugary, salty, and fatty fare won’t evolve away overnight. Schools, alas, must work with the children they have. As Hayes says, “It’s only nutrition if they eat or drink it. You can plan something absolutely perfect and wonderful—but if they don’t eat it, it’s not nutritious.” Tossing healthy fare into the compost bin might be good for the school garden, but it’s not what those hoping to change childhood obesity rates have in mind.