Developing strategies to end hunger

Better Food for School Nutrition Programs

Doug Davis believes it’s his role as an educator to expose kids to healthy foods they might not see at home. First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign champions adding thousands of new salad bars to school cafeterias. In honor of African American History Month, we highlight Michelle Obama’s efforts to encourage Americans to live healthier lives in this excerpt from the 2012 Hunger Report:

Fresh fruit and vegetable consumption in schools has been on the rise for the past decade in Burlington, VT, where nearly half the children qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Burlington is one of 15 school districts in the nation to be named a USDA model farm-to-school program, an effort where local farms are tapped to provide a share of the foods served in schools. Burlington’s program has now grown beyond the cafeteria to bring healthy, fresh snacks into the classroom.

“If you put a bowl of grapes in a classroom, kids will eat them,” says Doug Davis, food services director of Burlington Public Schools. “By the same token, if you put a bowl of chips there, they’d eat those too. But I’m not convinced that if you had a bowl of chips and a bowl of grapes, that they’d choose the chips instead of the grapes.”

Davis doesn’t believe it’s his job to stop kids from eating chips, or to get them to prefer grapes to chips. Instead, he wants to expose them to healthy foods they might not see at home. He sees that as his role as an educator. “In five or 10 years, these kids will be making their own food purchases.  I hope when they go shopping for themselves or for their families, instead of two bags of chips they might decide to get a bag of grapes and a bag of chips. If we don’t expose them to these foods early, we lose the opportunity to affect that decision.”

Parents choose not to serve their kids certain foods for many reasons. For low-income parents, it may first be an economic decision: when food dollars are scarce, families simply can’t afford to waste money on foods that kids might refuse to eat. Exposing children to healthy foods in the child nutrition programs reduces that risk somewhat. It can support parents who crave healthy foods but don’t feel they can give themselves permission to buy them without knowing that their children will eat them—this lack of knowledge is part of what makes food choices tougher than they should be. Yet parental fruit and vegetable intake is one of the strongest predictors of fruit and vegetable consumption in young children.

Fruits and vegetables are often spoken of in one breath as if they are one and the same, but research shows that children gravitate more naturally towards fruits than vegetables. One way schools have gotten children to sample unfamiliar vegetables is by including them on salad bars. Schools that want a salad bar find they have a supporter in First Lady Michelle Obama, whose "Let's Move" campaign is championing public-private partnerships to add thousands of new salad bars to school cafeterias. A salad bar in every school may sound like a dream, but there are measures USDA can take to help make it a reality. The agency shouldn’t relax its rules on food safety or ignore salad portion sizes, but it should work with food service directors to help them make rules and standards work “on the ground."

+ Read more from the 2012 Hunger Report's feature on Women and Children First.

Kate Hagen is Hunger Report project assistant at Bread for the World Institute.


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