Editorial: Serving healthier school lunches a worthy quest
The MCAS tests don’t measure student success with nutrition, but something should. We hope the old idea of making school lunches more appealing, with fresher and local ingredients, continues to gain traction, as it is doing in Amherst, Hadley and other local schools.
Public money is spent on these meals, after all, and deserves to be used wisely. At their worst, school lunches that serve processed, sugary and fatty foods invest in poor health in a nation with a weight problem.
One local group on the front lines of the healthy lunch battle suggests the good guys are winning. As of this spring, as many as 230 school districts in the state were purchasing food for their lunches directly from farmers. That’s according to the Farm to School Project led by Kelly Erwin of Amherst. The program has two main goals: providing fresh produce for student meals and creating markets for local growers. At the same time, getting local fruits and vegetables into schools levels the playing field, nutritionally speaking, for students from varying family incomes.
All of these goals are worth chasing.
Fresher food tastes better. And go figure: lunches that taste better are more popular with students.
Amherst Superintendent Maria Geryk wants the town’s investment in school lunches to pay off through better nutrition and a more vibrant and popular cafeteria program. As it stands, just 55 percent of Amherst students opt to buy lunch at school. While that percentage can elect a president, it’s a failing grade for a lunch program.
Some students who bring their lunches to school in Amherst, we understand, are dissatisfied with what’s offered. Geryk says she hears often from parents and community members that they’d like to see healthier lunches, as well as curbs on sugar-laden snacks that turn up in classrooms to mark birthdays. While those parties have nothing to do with institutional lunch programs, the calories end up in the same places.
Steps to improve the appeal and nutritional value of lunch at school can make these meals programs more viable. Amherst’s subsidy of its school lunch program would be smaller if the 45 percent of students who avoid it were customers.
Geryk will be able to call upon local allies. One is John Gerber, a University of Massachusetts professor who landed a grant to start vegetable gardens at Amherst elementary schools. Nothing is more local than produce grown outside classroom windows, though this is an idea perhaps best suited to schools in warmer climes.
Still, before schools let out in June, well-designed gardens with cold frames can produce a lot of food. In fall, gardens tended over the summer can produce a bounty of squash, potatoes and produce such as kale. School gardens also show students that food need not come from an industrial farm in a place they’ve never seen.
In Hadley, students already sit down to lunches that include potatoes and squash from a farm in town, as well as produce from growers in Amherst and Hatfield. The interplay between the food-service program at Hopkins Academy and these farms is robust, says Diane Zak, its coordinator. She met last spring with Valley farmers to coordinate seed selection so her salad bar would get the specific locally sourced ingredients it needed. She likes the idea of sending students out to farms to bag lettuce headed for the Hopkins Academy salad bar. So do we.
For three years, Michelle Obama has used the bully pulpit of her status as first lady to campaign for healthier school lunches. Efforts in Massachusetts to address nutrition shortcomings in public school lunches predate her call to present children with fresher, healthier food choices. But the message from the White House is reinforcing this good idea and there remains lots of room for improvement. Enough to drive a tractor through.