Planting Educational Seeds in Red Hook | Development | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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Planting Educational Seeds in Red Hook 

Eat Your Homework

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II. The National School Lunch Program feeds 32 million children every year, and any district that receives reimbursement for their lunch program is required to set up committees and policies on nutrition and physical activities. But as Nicci Cagan, the Wellness/Garden Committee Chair for the Marbletown PTA explains, “Most schools’ Wellness Committees meet once and then forget about it.”

Cagan’s volunteerism helped to implement school gardens in each of her district’s elementary schools and the middle school. And it’s created somewhat of a food expert in her. “You get a cycle of about four years with a parent in a school,” Cagan says. “That’s why it’s really important that districts own the farm-to-school initiatives. Because then parents can plug in and support, but it has a life beyond them.” And it’s the Wellness Committee that gives parents a voice. For instance, when Marbletown lost their food services director, Cagan, for the Wellness Committee, requested the replacement be farm-to-school focused. That opened the applicant pool beyond those who passed the civil service test, and they were inundated with promising applicants. “Wellness covers a lot of areas, but for changing your children’s food and creating better choices, the Wellness Committee is the way to be effective.”

The one to watch, Cagan feels, is Julie Holbrook, food services director for Keene Central and Schroon Lake Central in the Adirondacks. Both schools are tiny compared to most with 169 and 229 students in K-12, respectively. “That’s a different curve when it comes to procurement possibilities, I know,” Holbrook exclaims. But it’s the size that allows Holbrook to get creative with the food service she can provide. Both schools have a CSA share for their eggs, vegetables and some fruit. They also get grass fed beef from a local farmer. The schools have very good budgets, and Holbrook has learned how to make the most of them. They make their own bread and don’t use portion cups, which are time-consuming to fill and wasteful, instead optioning for portion scoops, which workers monitor. “We cook completely from scratch,” she says, “Then you can save your leftovers, unlike with processed foods.”

Holbrook’s cafeterias are probably what parents hope for. They don’t serve any food with high fructose corn syrup, their a la cartes don’t contain additives, and they haven’t served flavored milk in so long that most students don’t even remember it. But while Holbrook notes that the USDA is strongly encouraging of using local foods, she knows that most schools don’t have the equipment to cook, nor the labor hours to do so, and that’s not what the cafeteria workers were hired for. “Even I’m hassled about my hours,” she says. “Schools are in dire straits financially.” There are grants to help schools with high free- and reduced-lunch populations, but you need someone who can put a plan into action and an administration who will allow that. “Cooking from scratch is so much cheaper,” Holbrook remarks, “but not on paper.”

It’s this type of ingenuity that Sarah Wu advocates. In her book, Fed Up With Lunch, Wu, a teacher in Chicago, writes about the year she spent eating at her school’s cafeteria. She learned a lot that year, including the loopholes in nutritional requirements. For instance, fries count as a serving of vegetables and can be offered daily, despite the caloric, sodium and fat content. In fact, most of the foods served in schools don’t come with nutritional labeling or ingredient lists. With all the fillers and non-food ingredients it takes to make processed foods, she wasn’t surprised about the lethargy and lack of focus she saw in her students after lunch. She blames the mostly twenty minute lunch periods, including line time. She witnessed kids scarfing down the tastiest parts of their lunch (usually chocolate milk, the juice in the fruit cup and whatever was fried) and tossing the rest. “…In the short times kids have to eat, they aren’t going to have time to eat a balanced meal, even if that’s what’s being offered,” she writes. But the problem is that for a lot of kids, the school lunch is their best shot at getting good nutrition in a day, particularly for low income families who live where access to fresh food is limited and processed food is a way of life. For a nation fighting an obesity epidemic, as well as a reputation for poor academics, that’s pretty serious. How can kids concentrate if they’re not adequately nourished, she asks? Cafeterias, Wu feels, should be an extension of the curriculum, where kids learn about nutrition and real food. And that’s where the garden classrooms come in.

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