Healthy foods in Kalamazoo schools: How you can help

Emily Greenman Wright is feeling the parental year-before-kindergarten jitters. But, it's not just the anticipation of the separation from her oldest child that has her feeling a bit anxious. She's also concerned about the food her child will be served while at Kalamazoo Public Schools.

"I have heard that the food choices are not the best," Greenman Wright says. "I also attended KPS (albeit 30 some years ago), but I know what was available then." When she was a kid, she says, her family qualified for free-and-reduced-price lunch, but the quality of food didn't meet her parents' nutritional standards, so the only thing their family took advantage of back then was the milk. Despite efforts made over the last two decades, she anticipates her own family's food standards and conflicts to be much the same. 

And there have been efforts by school districts nationwide to improve the often dismal state of food products offered to school children. Gary Start, Deputy Superintendent for KPS, where more than 14,000 meals are served a day, says that over the years, the school district has decreased sugar and dyes in the breakfast menu, added more fresh fruits and veggies (local, when possible), served only whole grain products, offered free breakfast for all students, and implemented a summer food program.

Even so, the public school food menu is a reflection of American food culture, and unraveling an unhealthy food culture – with cafeterias full of picky kids – is a tall order. Healthy Foods in Kalamazoo Schools, a community-based advocacy effort, is working to improve access to healthy foods in public schools. Hether Frayer and Amy Peterson have been leading this push for different food choices in the cafeteria. 

Right now, they are ramping up their efforts and hope to bring more advocates to the table with a petition from parents and community members that asks the school district decision-makers – the superintendent, deputy superintendent, and school board – to prioritize healthy food as an essential component in improving academic and life outcomes for their students.

The petition sets forth seven priorities for the schools to adopt, which include:

• Provide unlimited filtered water

• Prohibit chemical additives

• Limit sugar with an upper limit based on American Heart Association guidelines

• Serve age-appropriate, easy to eat, fresh fruits, and vegetables

• Improve transparency and communication

• Serve scratch-cooked foods

• Add 5 minutes to every lunch (up from 20 to 25 minutes)

Peterson says that over the years there have been what she considers minor improvements to the school menu. She says that the schools' reduction of dyes and sugars from school breakfasts is notable. But the meal still "can have twice as much sugar as recommended by the American Heart Association for kids for a day."

A doctor's perspective

Peterson's concern about sugar in breakfast food is shared by Dr. Russell Cameron. Dr. Cameron isn't just a concerned parent of a KPS student, he's also a pediatric gastroenterologist for Bronson. He says highly processed foods that are high in refined sugars directly impact a child's ability to stay focused and sustain energy. He points to breakfast foods like chocolate milk, apple juice, and sugary yogurts as the culprits in energy bursts and subsequent crashes that make it hard for kids to stay focused through the morning.

Dr. Cameron says that many of the complaints in children that he sees – things like functional abdominal pain and constipation – are nutrition-related. So, he sees the importance of nutritious meals as a holistic issue – something that influences a child's ability to learn, their physical health, and even a child's perception of what healthy foods are.

And that's the most insidious concern Dr. Cameron has about the "healthy efforts" in reforming school meals. He calls a lot of what he's seeing as "a kind of pseudo emphasis on healthy," which causes kids to think that certain food products are healthy, when in fact, they actually aren't very healthy at all. Breakfast foods, especially, that are touted as “healthy” are concerning, because they are highly processed and high in refined sugar. Dr. Cameron worries that "we're feeding into that really negative false marketing that's been going on with food companies." He says that probably the most concerning thing about the healthy food emphasis is the long-term impact on children's beliefs about healthy eating. 

Lots of stakeholders; different priorities

One of KPS's efforts to increase real, whole foods has been the incorporation of a salad bar at many schools. But, Sarah Davis, who has a kindergartner at a KPS elementary says that up until this week, kindergartners at her child's school weren't allowed to access the salad bar. She has been told that beginning tomorrow (March 18) kindergartners will be allowed to start using the salad bar. She says she's glad for that change, because, "(My child's) practically a vegetarian and prefers fresh fruits and vegetables to anything else." Before she was allowed this option, Davis says her daughter wasted a lot of her lunch.

Davis says, "Not only would I like to see more fresh food, I would love to find a way to limit the food waste. I cannot believe the amount of uneaten food that is thrown away because they are required to provide certain kinds of foods no matter what. I feel like the kids would eat more of it if it weren't the same blurring rotation of junk food meals – corn dogs, chicken nuggets, chips and cheese in an endless menu of gas station food." Her sense is that KPS seems to do a great job "of providing mediocre food quickly and easily to the masses."

And this is the crossroads that Caroline Webber, Associate Professor of Dietetics at WMU, recognizes. "Food service departments in particular, are in a tough place because they have to balance parental food requests, children's true food choices (not just their parents' wishes), budgetary constraints, time restraints (putting meals together that can be distributed and eaten in a 25-minute lunch period, for instance), manufacturing specifications (what's actually out there in the marketplace that's affordable and fits USDA requirements), food safety, school physical resources, and staff hiring and training."
 
She adds, "There are few topics I can think of with so many stakeholders, each with a different set of priorities. As they say, it takes a village to raise a child. It helps if everyone in the village has the same priorities." 

So, what should those priorities be? 

Webber says when it comes to setting priorities, "My personal preference would be to reduce processed foods and increase fresh, whole, regionally sourced foods to the extent possible." Which is good news for the Healthy Foods in Kalamazoo Schools initiative, because this matches their goals, exactly. But, Webber, asks, "Are parents and taxpayers who underwrite much of the school breakfast program willing to make this a higher priority and pay more for this?"

Christina A. Haller, Resident District Manager School Dining Services for Chartwells, the contracted food service provider for KPS, says its chefs and dietitians "team up to create nutritious meals that are in alignment with USDA requirements." The contractor also says fresh, healthy foods are a key focus for them, so they partner with places like Cherry Capital Foods and Coastal Produce to make local produce available when they can. 

Meanwhile, Jeremy Andrews of Sprout Urban Farm and Food Hub has been making inroads with school systems in Calhoun county. He says his success in bringing locally grown food and school gardens into the school districts there is based on making relationships with existing ambassadors within the schools, themselves. 

Sometimes those ambassadors – the ones who already have a passion for increasing access to healthy foods in their schools – are parents or students. Other times its staff and administrators. "Sprout," he says, "is ready to bring locally sourced food from 25 local farmers to schools in Kalamazoo, just as we currently are in Calhoun County!" And KPS says that it is in conversation with Sprout to see how it might form a partnership to get those local foods into the schools in Kalamazoo.

Schools, parents, and communities are all invested in their children, but true partnering is going to take some listening and real collaboration. In addition to the obvious stakeholders – parents, students, school staff, and administrators – Dr. Cameron says that Bronson has been having conversations about how they can be involved in these efforts.

"Children are our captive audience in the schools – they're there nine months a year, five days a week, for at least two meals a day," Cameron says. "Such a huge chunk of childhood is spent in the public school system. If any intervention is going to be done, that is such an obvious place that has been lacking." 

You can join the conversation between Healthy Foods, KPS, and Chartwells by attending one of their open meetings. You can find information about the meetings at the KPS website, under “Explore KPS and Wellness Initiative.” If you want to serve on the committee, or plan to attend these meetings please contact Heather Hayner at 337-0165. And you can also stay up to date on Healthy Food in Schools efforts by joining their Facebook group and signing their petition

Kathi Valeii is a writer, speaker, and activist living in Kalamazoo. She writes about gender-based oppression and full spectrum reproductive rights at her blog, birthanarchy.com. She is a KPS parent, with long-standing investment in healthy foods in her children's schools.

Photos by
Hether Frayer.
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