Nutrition serves as a crucial component of a healthy lifestyle, and that fact has worked its way from the health community down to schools, which are giving nutrition added attention. To explore this development and associated issues, we met with principals and an expert on food policy for a roundtable discussion in August. Panelists were Bonnie Johnson-Aten, lead district principal for the Burlington School District in Burlington, VT; Alison Maurice, child nutrition policy analyst with the Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) in Washington, D.C.; and Mary Pat Cumming, principal at The FAIR School in Minneapolis, MN. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: How important are food and nutrition issues in schools today compared to a decade ago?

Johnson-Aten: In Burlington, and I think just in general, we’re far ahead of where we were 10 years ago. Certainly people think about food more and realize the importance of food as it matters in connecting students and families, in terms of just student achievement. When I first started, we provided lunch. At this point, we provide breakfast, lunch—we also have a supper program. We provide lunch during the summer, and we also provide snacks. We pretty much feed kids all day long. Again, [it’s] for the purpose of recognizing that kids who are nourished actually do better in school.

Maurice: We have seen major growth in the national school breakfast and lunch programs, and a lot of that has to do with the research. Well-nourished kids really do better in school, have better attendance, fewer behavioral issues, and we can pinpoint some programs and best practices that have influenced this increase in participation. The community eligibility provision allows high-poverty schools to offer free meals to all students, regardless of their individual household income, so this is a great way to increase participation in school meals. Other best practices increase participation in the breakfast program, such as breakfast-after-the-bell models. Traditional school breakfast models serve breakfast before the start of the day, when it’s really hard for children to get to school due to busy morning schedules and late bus arrivals.

Additionally, there is a social stigma that the school breakfast program is only for low-income kids, so that also deters students from participating. The breakfast-after-the-bell models, which include breakfast in the classroom, grab-and-go carts, and second chance, really increase access to this program for low-income students, and therefore we’ve seen a major increase in participation. And then, as Bonnie was saying, after-school meals-schools are doing a great job at providing after-school snacks and suppers to engage students. These after-school meals are usually paired with educational activities or other types of extracurricular activities, so it’s a great way to get kids nourished but also a way to support education. Also, the summer food service program has increased due to a lot of outreach and increasing the types of sponsors—such as not just schools sponsoring sites, but also getting libraries and community centers involved—to make sure our low-income students are not missing out on nutrition during the summer months. The summer learning gap can really take a toll on students, especially year after year. So, keeping students engaged at summer food sites that are paired with educational activities keeps our students well-nourished, keeps them safe during the summer, and keeps them actively engaged in their education all year long.

Cumming: I echo these comments and would add that over the last 10 years, the increased focus on student nutrition from state and federal programming has intensified, increasing schools’ necessary funding for breakfast and lunch programming. As a principal, I know the impact this has on student learning.

Levin-Epstein: What part do food and nutrition play in terms of the curriculum at schools? 

Johnson-Aten: One of the things where our kids get a lot of their education is through our gardening programs. Every school in Burlington—we have 11 schools-has a garden of some size. We also partner with some of the local farms as well as the co-ops within the city to provide education services and nutrition information to our students. At the middle and high school, there are some classes that … have nutrition as part of what we teach students. We certainly could do more, but I believe that the gardening program really is the place where many of those conversations and that education occur.

Maurice: It seems as though nutrition education is getting pushed out of the curriculum in many parts of the country, so the meals that children are served at school really need to be healthy so that we can reinforce healthy eating habits. You can also utilize after-school meals and summer feeding programs to encourage additional nutrition education while pairing that with the healthy meals and snacks. There is also a strong farm-to-school movement, and FRAC has an after-school guide on implementing more farm-to-school programs. Farm-to-school programs are great in that children can see where their food comes from. And when the food you’re getting comes directly from a farm, it is going to have good nutritional value, so that again is reinforcing the importance of eating nutritious foods.

Cumming: In FAIR, we have a robust nutrition education that occurs in classrooms with the Midwest Food Connection that comes into the school for a residency for our youngest students, providing connections and education with students, complete with cooking with them and culminating with a trip to the farm. Taking that further, our farm-to-school program in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) includes fresh produce from mid-sized farms that also use sustainable growing methods. They are located right around the metro area, I think about 100 miles. We use local baked goods and meats, too, and our cooking is on-site. Our district nutrition services also promote students trying new foods through taste testing during lunch time—right where students are. They provide nutritional information and agricultural sourcing. One really interesting program MPS introduced is “Minnesota Thursdays,” where the menu is made up of an entirely locally sourced meal. It’s promoted in the cafeteria and includes where the menu items came from, such as the restaurant or market.

Levin-Epstein: How can principals reach out to parents about food and nutrition issues?

Johnson-Aten: At Burlington, the way in which we engage them is really back through our gardens and sponsoring back-to-school nights that include food—healthy food—and food that’s been harvested and also cooked by the students at the farms. That happens pretty regularly at most of the schools throughout the district. Again, we also have a pretty strong farm-to-school program. We’ve actually made great strides in the last 10 years, and that’s a pretty important thing in Vermont; it’s quite the movement, not only in schools, but also in restaurants. With the garden-based education, in addition to the physical activity, we really want to bring parents in, so we bring them in through the various events that schools offer. It’s generally around dinners or lunches that are sponsored at the school.

Maurice: Food is a great way to get parents engaged in their children’s education, just to begin with. We definitely recommend inviting parents to participate in the school meals, whether that’s coming to observe a school breakfast, or we’ve seen some schools invite parents to their after-school program where they’ve been doing nutrition education and the children can give small presentations to their parents about what they’ve learned. So, while the child is learning, the parents are being educated and getting engaged as well.

A lot of communication between schools and parents is important. It’s important for parents to understand the benefits of their child participating in school meals and to appreciate that good nutrition is a key factor in academic success. So, their child is going to do a lot better if they’re eating three healthy meals a day, two of which they can probably get from school. Getting parents engaged is very important, and strong communication is key.

Levin-Epstein: What’s the attitude today about vending machines at schools? 

Johnson-Aten: Certainly we are seeing a lot fewer vending machines. In fact, I’m trying to think of really where they are. In my building, the middle school, there is one vending machine, and it only has water in it. There may be a few at the high school, but whatever it is, there are absolutely healthier choices, and they’re pretty limited in terms of what kids can select. Again, that’s a pretty big change from 10 or 15 years ago, where vending machines were just everywhere.

Cumming: We do not have any vending machines in our building anymore. Ten years ago, we had four! Most of the choices were unhealthy and junk food. Now, all snack items we have are provided by the district. For example, in our after-school programs, we have Super Snacks that are full of protein and fruits/veggies-and they all meet state and federal guidelines. Even when we do events at school, we stick to healthy choices—no cake or cupcakes, for example. I do wish we had a vending machine for water in my building!

Maurice: Actually, for any school operating the national school breakfast and lunch programs, there are nutrition standards that all foods served at school—even if it’s through a vending machine—must follow. USDA calls the foods available outside of regular meal service Smart Snacks (see sidebar below). Any food that is in a vending machine must now qualify as a Smart Snack. We are seeing that mostly all schools are meeting these nutrition standards. We have seen, particularly at the high school level, schools using vending machines to dispense reimbursable meals, usually at breakfast time, so that is one way to still have a vending machine and have it be a reimbursable meal that meets the nutrition standards.

Levin-Epstein: What kind of innovative programs in this space are you aware of?

Johnson-Aten: There are a couple of pretty innovative things that are happening in Burlington. We have one elementary school that about five years ago actually created an orchard. They have 12 fruit trees, raspberry bushes, blueberries, and then they have a track that’s built around it, so that kids can really understand the relationship between healthy eating and exercise. That’s at the elementary school. At the high school, again, our gardens tend to be a really big piece of what we do around nutrition, but they have beekeeping, and there is greenhouse work, and they do have a food science and urban farm course that was co-developed with some local farmers.

Again, we do have a great relationship and partnership with our local co-op in terms of supporting us, particularly around the farm-to-school piece of having kids really understand that their food is being grown locally. One of the other things that we do at the middle school, especially in sixth grade, is we take kids down to what we call the Intervale, which is where they grow a lot of root crops, and they will actually do some gleaning and picking of carrots, beets, and potatoes. So, we really get them understanding where their food comes from.

Maurice: There are some really great nutrition-geared curricula out there that schools can be using with their high school students to continue reinforcing the importance of nutritious meals. And like Bonnie was saying, school gardens are a great way to pair your earth science education with nutrition so your students make the connection between foods grown on their school campus and the food that they are actually consuming. We suggest schools develop partnerships with cooperative extensions, such as with colleges and universities, to help provide nutrition education to students. We also encourage partnerships with other local food agencies, such as food banks and local farmers if there are farms around, as great ways to further a child’s exposure to nutritious foods.

Cumming: I mentioned a few of the innovative programs we have in Minneapolis like the Minnesota Thursdays. Our district recently combined the Wellness Department, which is in charge of active living and outreach to parents for information in nutrition, with Nutrition Services, so it’s now known as the Culinary and Wellness department. This will increase service and support for the whole child and families. Our director, Bertrand Weber, is responsible for the programming and leading the new department. MPS has a unique approach to school food and is always trying to find ways to produce and serve healthy options. We have focused on how to decrease costs by investing in production machines rather than in food costs. For example, this year I know that all of our dressings and such will be produced in-house for the whole district utilizing a new machine that will make—and then portion—dressings. [It’s] a huge cost savings when you think of the waste that comes from traditional servings. It’s ecologically less waste for the environment, too.

There is also a push to increase the amount of produce from the farm-to-school program by investing resources that will enable the processing of the produce—the most time-intensive and expensive part—so we can get it into the kitchen. MPS hopes it will increase our locally sourced produce into the kitchens by about fourfold. Take, for example, kohlrabi—when culinary gets it from the farm, the leaves have to be taken off by hand. The new machine will do this far faster and more efficiently, leaving funding to purchase additional produce.

Johnson-Aten: One other thing I’d like to mention, in terms of being innovative, is we do have a food truck at the high school. It’s a student-led food truck, where they work in the summer, they make the food, and then they actually sell the food at farmers markets and different events that happen throughout the summer. That’s actually one of our flagship programs that really has taken off in the last couple years.

Smart Snacks in Schools

Starting in academic year 2014–15, all foods sold at school during the school day are required to meet federally mandated nutrition standards. The Smart Snacks in School regulation applies to foods sold à la carte, in the school store, in vending machines, and at any other venues through which food is sold to students.

A number of tools and resources are available to help schools identify food items that meet Smart Snacks criteria. See the resources below for information about the Smart Snacks requirement, helpful tools, and ways to encourage children to make healthier snack choices that give them the nutrition they need to grow and learn.

Resource Materials