In Search of a School-Food Playbook

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning New York food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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When Maddy Wierzel started teaching at Jettie S. Tisdale Elementary, many of the 28 fifth graders in her class had never tasted a string bean, let alone a yellow pole bean or a watermelon radish or the purple potatoes she was showing them pictures of. And so, naturally, the kids had a lot of questions: Do purple potatoes taste like potatoes? (Yes.) Can you make French fries with them? (Yes.) Can you make home fries? (Yes, anything you can do with regular potatoes, you can do with purple ones.)

It takes time and patience to teach 10-year-olds to love vegetables, especially if they are tasting many of them for the first time. Tisdale Elementary is in Bridgeport, Conn. A once-thriving factory town, today the city has a per-capita annual income of only $16,000—this, despite the fact that it is only 30 miles from Greenwich, home to hedge-fund managers and power lawyers who make it one of the richest towns in America. Wierzel is a member of FoodCorps, a small but growing army of good-food evangelists who are deployed to help give children in low-income communities what co-founder Jerusha Klemperer calls an “enduring relationship with healthy food.” Wierzel is now in her second year on the job, one of this year’s 182 FoodCorps service members in 18 states plus the District of Columbia.

Along with Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard, the first and most famous children’s food-education program in the United States, FoodCorps is one of the most visible and successful. But over the past decade, hundreds of such programs have sprouted. There are efforts that focus on gardens, such as DC Greens, which has built a curriculum and training program for school gardeners. Others, such as the aptly named Cooking with Kids, in Santa Fe, emphasize cooking. Still others, like Wellness in the Schools, in New York, work to change what kids get on their cafeteria trays.

I mention these programs because I know them to be both well-intentioned and effective. Their leaders are dynamic and persistent, if not relentless—qualities that are must-have in any food-reform effort. But despite the explosion of programs, we still don’t have a school-food playbook, a guide to what works, what doesn’t and what provides return-on-investment for cash-strapped schools. And we need one—both to win over skeptics and to justify funding for programs that teach kids to love and value food.

There have been some compelling studies. An analysis of the Edible Schoolyard program showed that after one year in the program, fifth graders ate nearly one extra serving of vegetables per day. A 2011 study (co-written by former Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, a new Stone Barns Center board member) showed that low-income middle school students who had spent time planting, tending, harvesting and tasting vegetables in a school garden also had a greater preference for vegetables and were more willing to taste unfamiliar vegetables than those who had not. But by far the most interesting study is a 1998 analysis of New York’s Cookshop program.  It broke down exactly what kind of education (cooking, nutrition, environmental) and what exposure to foods were necessary to change children’s eating habits.

Researchers enlisted 39 classes, about 600 students, between kindergarten and sixth grade in Harlem and divided them into four groups. All students tried 13 new, healthy foods, including sweet potatoes, broccoli and brown rice, in the cafeteria over five months. The first group got no nutrition education. The second group learned about food and the environment in the classroom. The third participated in interactive cooking lessons, while the fourth learned about food in class and the kitchen.

After two years, the students who had some classroom lessons were more interested and open to eating new, healthy foods. But the ones who cooked were most enthusiastic, eating about 20 percent more of the new foods than they had before. The lesson for all of us is that the best food education unites cooking, gardening and healthy food in the cafeteria. Programs that emphasize only one side of what I call the new food pyramid may only take us so far.

Of course, changing food in the cafeteria is difficult, and today is more politicized than ever. (This is why the lead researcher of the Cookshop study, Toni Liquori, now heads up School Food Focus, an organization that leverages the procurement power of large school districts to make school meals more healthful and sustainably produced.)

This spring, the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food workers and the food industry, lobbied for a rider to a Congressional spending bill to relax tough standards that were mandated in 2010, but the bill never came to a vote. First Lady Michelle Obama has fought back; this month a team of military generals helped her by making the case that good nutrition for students is essential for national security. There’s still no word on whether Republicans will try to insert the language into a spending bill later this year, but analysts expect the debate to reignite in 2015 when the bill that funds school lunch comes up for reauthorization.

The Cookshop study’s conclusions make sense to me. But it is only one study, of course. FoodCorps already is working hard to collect data. In its first year, 65 percent of its service members’ participating classrooms demonstrably improved their attitudes toward trying new fruits and vegetables. It is essential that all food-education programs test and analyze their programs, then share information with others. Think of it as a new kind of school nutrition association to fight for good education and food in schools.