(Beyond Pesticides, August 31, 2009) This year back to school doesn’t just mean new teachers, new school supplies and new clothes. For some, it means a new school lunch program — one that focuses on nutrition and organic and locally grown foods — as is the case for the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) in Colorado, where they have begun reforming the quality and nutrition of the food served in its schools. The Lunch Box, a new web tool, has been launched to help schools throughout the country do the same.
Nationally renowned “Renegade Lunch Lady” Chef Ann Cooper is BVSD’s Interim Director of Nutrition Services as part of a one-year contract with the district. Although changing a school’s lunch program can’t happen overnight (Chef Cooper predicts that it will take several years for the full vision to be realized), cafeteria offerings can be quite healthier from the get-go. A key component to the BVSD change is professional development for more than 150 nutrition services personnel with five full days of training. Training includes everything from culinary skills to recipe development and safe food handling.
In addition, as a first step, every school cafeteria in the district will provide regionally produced organic milk, locally produced foods from fruits and vegetables to whole grain baked products and burritos, and fresh salad bars. BVSD has also eliminated trans fats, high fructose corn syrup and highly processed foods.
“Year one in Boulder Valley will be the most challenging but also the most exciting,” said Ms. Cooper. “We’re so fortunate to have such a bounty of local, healthy food in Boulder Valley that we can make accessible to the children of BVSD. This work won’t be easy but I know with local support, we will fulfill meaningful change here and beyond.”
“We believe Boulder Valley is fortunate to have a national leader in school nutrition now partnering with our food service staff and leading the BVSD Nutrition Services Department so that all of the BVSD’s children can have access to healthier food,” said Superintendent Chris King. “We hope that this will not only benefit the families of Boulder Valley, but also allow our model to serve as an open book for school districts across the country.”
Ms. Cooper and Lunch Lessons LLC were first hired by BVSD in 2008 to conduct a feasibility study of how best to get BVSD from the traditional school food service model of highly processed, high sugar and sodium frozen foods to a sustainable model of scratch-cooked, closer to the source, and fresh foods. Much of the work with Cooper and Lunch Lessons has been partially funded through a public-private partnership, the School Food Project (SFP), a unique task force of community businesses, nonprofits, activists, and district officials all dedicated to improving the quality of food served to children of the district. Local businesses and dozens of local Boulder Valley families have donated to the School Food Project raising almost $400,000 to date with a goal of $750,000 by the end of the 2009-10 school year.
Ms. Cooper, with the expertise of hundreds of school lunch reform advocates from across the country, has also created The Lunch Box: Healthy Tools To Help All Schools, a revolutionary web portal of tangible tools and practical solutions for school nutrition officials and children’s health advocates across the U.S. It is a first-of- its-kind school nutrition resource with a comprehensive set of “why” and “how to” online tools to transition the typical highly processed school meal program to healthier, wholesome and fresh food-based menus with no trans fats, high fructose corn syrup or unnecessary chemical additives and preservatives.
To make the transition easier, especially with today’s tight school district budgets, the Lunch Box provides: 80 scalable recipes; nutritional and cost analyses; menu plans; budget, inventory and procurement models and templates; “How to Get Started” tips and case studies; food safety, handling and hazard analysis and tools; and, training videos available at no charge.
According to the Food, Family, Farming Foundation, the time is ripe for 31 million schoolchildren. Congress is expected to take up the Child Nutrition Act, a bill that is designed to help meet the nutritional needs of children through the National School Lunch Program and other feeding programs, which comes up for review only every five years. Increased budgets and improved nutritional standards, which have not changed in 15 years, will be up for debate. Rates of childhood obesity are soaring. About 12 percent of children ages 2 to 5 are obese compared with 17 percent of kids 6 to 11, and 18 percent of kids ages 12 to 19.
Food & Water Watch, based in Washington, DC, has been working to get schools to provide organic milk or milk not treated with the recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH). A recently released report by Food & Water Watch, rBGH: How Artificial Hormones Damage the Dairy Industry and Endanger Public Health, describes how this genetically engineered artificial hormone has been linked to cancer in humans and numerous illnesses in dairy cows.
Approved in 1994 by the Food and Drug Administration, rBGH is injected into cows to make them produce more milk. Besides the documented increase of infections in dairy cows injected with rBGH, which necessitates increased use of antibiotics, there are ongoing questions about links to cancer in humans. Based on the number of dairies that use rBGH in the United States, it is possible that at least 84 million gallons of milk from rBGH-treated cows were distributed through the school nutrition programs in 2005-2006.
“Our children’s health should not be put at risk by their being made to consume rBGH milk at school,” said Ms. Cooper “Legislation must be put into effect that eliminates artificial hormones and antibiotics from all milk served in school cafeterias all across the country – our children’s health depends upon this.”
Some school districts, including Seattle public schools, and California school districts in Berkeley, Santa Monica, and Palo Alto, already have policies banning junk food and encouraging organic food in school cafeterias. The San Francisco Unified School District and the River Valley School District in Wisconsin, have passed school board resolutions to source only rBGH-free milk in their schools due to parents’ demands. And an organic salad bar started at Lincoln Elementary School in Olympia, Washington has proven so popular and economically feasible, all grade schools in Olympia now have one.
Children who eat a diet of organic food show a level of pesticides in their body that is six times lower than children who eat a diet of conventionally produced food. A study from Emory University found that an organic diet given to children provides a “dramatic and immediate protective effect” against exposures to two pesticides that are commonly used in U.S. agricultural production. A study published in the February 2008 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives found that children who eat a conventional diet of food produced with chemical-intensive practices carry residues of organophosate pesticides that are reduced or eliminated when they switch to an organic diet.
Organic farming and food systems are holistic, work with nature rather than relying on inputs such as chemical pesticides and fertilizers, exhibit higher standards for the welfare of animals, and do not allow routine use of antibiotics. Organic farming also protects the farmworkers and their families from chemicals that have been shown to cause a myriad of chronic health effects, such as cancer, endocrine disruption and a series of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s disease. For more information of the many benefits of organic food, please visit Beyond Pesticides’ Organic Food program page.
For more information on organic school lunches, see Beyond Pesticides’ fact sheets “School Lunches Go Organic” and “Organizing for Organic School Lunches”. For more information on pesticides impact on children and what can be done to protect this vulnerable population, see Beyond Pesticides’ Children and Schools program page.