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Welcome to the Healthy School Food blog at One Green Planet! I am thrilled to join the team of incredible movers and shakers who write for this blog and to share with you what the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food (NYCHSF) is doing, and most importantly, what you can do to make school food better in your local school district or how you can get involved with our projects.

First, a little about us: New York Coalition for Healthy School Food introduces plant-based foods and nutrition education in schools to educate the whole school community. We change how schools feed kids. NYCHSF is the only statewide non-profit in the country solely devoted to school food issues, and in addition, we are ALL plant-based. Everything we do is about promoting plant-foods and plant-based nutrition education.

Before we formed as a non-profit, we wrote a legislative resolution for New York State in 2004. Resolutions are not laws – they are recommendations, but in New York State, they are voted on as if they were a law. Ours asks for a healthy vegan entree every day as a healthy option, and nutrition education that includes information on vegan eating and multicultural eating patterns. It also encourages school gardens and farm to school programs. We were surprised and thrilled that the resolution passed unanimously. After it passed, we decided that we needed an organization to implement the recommendations of the resolution. Thus, the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food was born.

Our signature program, Cool School Food, is in two school districts: New York City, the largest school food service operation in the country, and in Ithaca, NY, an upstate district in a small, progressive city. The mission of the Cool School Food program is to develop recipes and introduce them into schools. We do this with partnerships in each city.

In New York City, Cool School Food is a partnership between NYCHSF, the NYC Office of SchoolFood, the Candle Restaurants – Candle Cafe, Candle 79, and Candle Cafe West, the James Beard Foundation, Food and Finance High School, and Henry’s restaurant. Our entrees have been served in 18 NYC schools, but we have a waiting list of over 50 schools. All the pieces are in place and the only thing that is preventing us from reaching more students is the funding to expand. Some of our Cool School Food entrees include: Magical Moroccan Beans and Greens, Black Bean Casserole (contains plantains), Chick Pea of the Sea Tacos, and Rockin’ Whole Grain Pasta and Chickpeas.

Our NYC program was chosen by the US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health, as one of three promising practices in the country (they since added two more promising practices).

In Ithaca, Cool School Food is a partnership between NYCHSF, the Ithaca City School District, Moosewood Restaurant, and Cayuga Pure Organics – who grow organic beans and grains. In Ithaca, we use local organic beans in our recipes as much as possible. Each new entrée is introduced with much fanfare: balloons, music from the culture that the recipe is from, voting ballots and a ballot box, and a display showing all the raw ingredients in the food. Children dig their hands through bowls of dry beans, they smell fresh ginger, and they marvel at ingredients they have never seen before. Some of our Cool School Food entrees include: Pasta Fazool, Mrs. Patel’s Rajma (an Indian kidney bean dish), and Fiesta Mexican Lasagna, which was chosen from the Recipes for Kids Challenge contest  to appear in a USDA recipe book! Our Ithaca program was also chosen to be featured at a poster session at the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Vermont this past summer.

The New York Coalition for Healthy School Food is creating real change. It’s not enough that our programs are currently in two school districts, even if one of them is the largest school food service operation in the country. Our recipes have just been distributed to over 14,000 schools across the country through the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. These schools are working with the Alliance to achieve certification levels, and will be motivated to try our recipes to help them achieve their goals.

Our signature nutrition education program is called Wellness Wakeup Call. Written by three registered dietitians who specialize in plant-based nutrition, Wellness Wakeup Call is nutrition education in “easy to digest” sound bites. There are two versions: K-5 and 6-12. Each comes with 22 messages per month, the maximum number of school days in a month. And each comes with a healthy recipe on the back to try at home (or at school). At the end of each month, we ask that the schools send students home with a copy of the Wellness Wakeup Call messages. We encourage parents to review the messages and try making the recipe with their children to reinforce what the kids have learned, but also so the parents can learn it as well. Preparing food is a great way to spend quality time together, and gets children interested in trying foods they might not otherwise want to try.

In the spring of 2012, we pre-piloted our new curriculum – Food UnEarthed: Uncovering the Truth About Food in two fifth grade classrooms in a New York City school. The teachers told us that many of the students listed our curriculum in their yearbooks as their best elementary school memory! We are very excited that we have hired a part time certified elementary  teacher who will be helping us to continue developing the curriculum, and introducing it into 8 classrooms in 4 schools starting this fall – impacting 200 students. If you are an elementary teacher and interested in helping us with lesson plan development, let us know.

One of our exciting projects, just completed a year ago, is a Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS) pilot project on Long Island, made possible with the support of Whole Foods Market (Jericho and Manhasset stores). We taught 10 classes of 7th graders, a total of 250 students, over the course of 10 weeks, how to make 8 different plant-based recipes. We were thrilled when the students went home and made the recipes for their families – and a few of the parents wrote thank you notes to the teacher! Some of these students did not know what an onion was; never mind how to cut one. It’s really wonderful that the students are now equipped with the knowledge and skills to take control of their health destinies. We are taking this exciting news to the New York State Family and Consumer Sciences Conference this fall and we will be able to reach teachers from all over the state with news of our exciting project. In addition, we’ll present them with an implementation guide for our program that includes recipes. This guide will also be available on our website for any FACS teacher in the country to take advantage of.

In the past, healthy school food was an oxymoron. Ronald Reagan’s administration tried to classify catchup as a vegetable. That never actually happened. But interestingly, the tomato paste on pizza counts as a vegetable, thanks to the frozen pizza lobby. So in the school food world, according to our federal government, pizza is a vegetable! But to be fair, I don’t know any School Food Service Director who ever counted pizza as a vegetable. In every school I have been in, there has always been a vegetable offered along with the pizza (Old regulations meant the vegetable had to be offered, but not served. New regulations require that students take either a fruit or a vegetable). The potato industry freaked out when proposed regulations suggested that potatoes be limited to one cup a week, in order to focus on more nutrient dense vegetables. Instead of a creative solution, all the potato industry could come up with was that potatoes are healthy, and other vegetables cost too much. We called the USDA and suggested that they let the non-deep-fried potato count as a grain instead of a vegetable, and the problem would have been solved. At home, potatoes serve as the starch – it’s either potatoes, or bread, or pasta, or rice. So why not at school? It just amazes us the amount of time and money that goes into such debates, and the lack of creative solutions.

Is healthy school food still an oxymoron? Sadly, yes. Regulations to improve school food are moving in the right direction, but they are still far too influenced by the food industry. Despite the new regulations that are being implemented this month, which will result in several improvements, we still expect to see many unhealthy processed foods in schools. In our next post, we’ll fill you in on the details of the new regulations, and why they don’t go far enough.

Developing recipes and nutrition education programs, and implementing them in schools is what we do. Introducing students to healthy foods that they may not have had previous exposure to, and giving them the knowledge to become critical thinkers about food can actually change student’s health destinies and lives. We can’t do it without a supportive network of volunteers to bring our programs into their local schools, or to help us work on our projects, and funders. If you are interested in getting involved, please contact me at [email protected] or call 607-272-1154.

Image Source: USDAgov/Flickr