The roots of school food

When the National School Lunch Program was created in 1946, its goal was to help both farmers and students. Farmers needed a steady market for their products and school systems needed a steady, inexpensive supply of food to sate an ever-increasing number of children. It cost $70 million in its initial year, and served 7.1 million students.

During the past six decades, the program has ballooned into a $9.3 billion enterprise that served more than 5 million meals to 31.1 million students in 2009. A program that began with a focus on farms and child nutrition now serves frozen pre-roasted commodity chicken parts, and includes “Pizza Fridays” and “Taco Tuesdays” on menus across the country. More than 80 percent of the nation’s school districts prepare fewer than half their entrees from scratch, according to a 2009 survey by the School Nutrition Association. “French fries account for 46 percent of vegetable servings eaten by children ages 2 to 19” across the nation, according to Ann Cooper and Lisa M. Holmes in their 2006 book, "Lunch Lessons."

Convenience now drives our culture, resulting in a growing health crisis among adults and children alike. Nearly one-third of American adults and more than 16 percent of children are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children as young as 7 are being diagnosed with illnesses formerly associated only with adulthood, such as Type-2 diabetes and heart disease. Health care costs have skyrocketed as more people find themselves suffering from weight-related health issues.

The problem is especially severe in New York City. According to the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, one in five kindergarteners are obese. Northern Manhattan and the Bronx are especially hard-hit: 28 percent of the population in those neighborhoods are obese, causing city officials to address this crisis by re-vamping New York City’s SchoolFood program, the largest public school food system in the country.

A fresh fix for processed food

Parents and teachers have teamed up to bring more fresh food to schools. Bill Telepan, executive chef of Telepan restaurant on the Upper West Side, partnered with former teacher and principal Nancy Easton in 2005 to form Wellness in the Schools after learning that a mixture of grape jelly and ketchup passed for barbecue sauce in his daughter’s elementary school. Wellness in the Schools, which promotes children's nutrition, environmental awareness and fitness, is now one of many city organizations devoted to this cause.

"A lot of kids get up to 80 percent of their calories from the schools, so it's really important they get the best, healthiest stuff. I don't want the [food] choices being made for them to be bad," Telepan said. His experience as a chef helps him develop recipes for the schools and teach the kitchen staff how to cook them.

“The main goal is to eliminate the processed food,” Easton said. “We're working on a menu template where instead of 'mozzarella stick Mondays' it's vegetarian chili, homemade with rice on the side. And we'll always every day have a fresh salad bar, with two lettuces, three vegetables and a fruit and a composed salad. We work very very closely with SchoolFood to make this happen and we use only their ingredients.”

Many of the parents who are dedicated to serving healthy meals at home are also rallying against the junk-food vending that is commonplace in most public schools. Snacks are now limited to fewer than 200 calories and 200 milligrams of sodium per item. Sugars and fat must be less than 35 percent of total calories, and saturated fat less than 10 percent.

At public school bake sales, processed foods have replaced homemade cookies and brownies because they do not list nutritional content. Parents argue that the restriction undermines the nutrition lessons they advocate at home.

Before eating habits can change, families must change the way they think about food. This means evaluating time spent in the supermarket and how meals are prepared and eaten. “Food is also about pleasure, about community, about family and spirituality, about our relationship to the natural world, and about expressing our identity,” author Michael Pollan wrote in his 2008 book "In Defense of Food."

Replacing cookies made from scratch with potato chips, for example, sends mixed messages about nutrition and in turn alters parents' conceptions about what is and is not healthy. Parents often succumb to bright packaging and big labels, rather than taking the time to carefully read the ingredients. Marion Nestle, the Paulette Goddard professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, advises parents against buying items that advertise health benefits or use bright colors or pictures to attract children. “Health claims are all misleading and the cartoon is only there for marketing purposes aimed at kids,” Nestle said.

First lady Michelle Obama is also trying to help parents implement healthier lifestyles for their families. She created the “Let’s Move” campaign to promote eating well and being fit. In addition, celebrity chef Rachael Ray has partnered with SchoolFood to create healthy, flavorful "YUM-O" meals for New York City students, including sizzling soft tacos with Southwest roasted chicken and sweet roasted corn, and vegetarian Veg-Head beans.

Students chow down on chicken sandwiches and salad at Future Leaders Institute Charter School in Harlem.