We’ve all grown up hearing, “Eat your veggies!” but many of us never stop to think why, beyond a vague understanding that they are healthy. Most of us would hardly call it a meal without a hearty serving of meat and some form of bread. We know milk “does a body good,” yet we tend to overlook some of the most nutrient-dense foods available, our fruits and vegetables. Fresh produce not only adds color and variety to our meals, but also essential vitamins, minerals, and nutrients that protect our bodies from illness and disease. Complex carbohydrates fuel our bodies so that we have the energy we need to perform, and rich minerals like calcium and iron from dark leafy greens give us strong bones and muscles and carry oxygen to our vital organs. Given the important role fruits and vegetables play in our health, it’s no wonder this old-fashion advice is still repeated. It’s just a wonder it took us so long to listen.
As part of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the USDA recommends that we all strive to fill half our plate with a variety of fruits and vegetables at every meal. These include fresh, frozen, canned and dried options in raw or cooked form. This guideline is not only for adults, but for children too, so it’s no surprise that the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP) have increased their emphasis on fruits and vegetables. All schools that utilize these government programs are required to include a fruit and a vegetable component at lunch, and a daily fruit or vegetable component at breakfast. Students are required to select these components in order for a meal to be reimbursable. Vegetable components are now categorized by type: red/orange, dark green, legumes, starchy, and other. Click here for a link to the vegetable subgroups as defined by the USDA. Although this may seem like a huge burden to already logistically and financially challenged programs, given what we know about the obesity epidemic and that this generation of children is not expected to outlive their parents, drastic measures must be taken. So how can schools successfully adhere to these guidelines without busting their bottom-line or their trash bags? Here are some suggestions:
- Education! Encourage your school to provide nutrition education so that students understand why healthy food options are important.
- Highlight local, seasonal produce and incorporate no-thank-you-bites or other tastings throughout the school year. Using produce from local farms or school gardens can increase meal participation and support the local economy.
- Maximize cost savings. Utilize a combination of fresh, frozen, and canned produce options. Many of these are available through the USDA foods program (formerly commodity foods).
- Enroll in the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program (FFVP). Find out if your school is eligible for the FFVP, a federally assisted program that provides free fruits and vegetables to qualifying elementary schools in all 50 states.
- Set up a salad bar to encourage greater choice. The USDA encourages the use of salad bars in school meal programs. Salad bars can contain all of the necessary components to qualify as reimbursable meals. Furthermore, the Institute of Medicine’s report, “The School Meals Building Blocks for Healthy Children” cites a 2007 study that determined that “salad bar programs in public schools indicate positive effects on fruit and vegetable consumption.”
- Seek training for your staff. The National Food Service Management Institute offers free trainings for schools to implement these guidelines as well as a variety of other topics.
- Get recognized for your efforts. There are grants and awards for schools that meet certain nutritional standards.
- Learn from others. There are many nationally recognized successful school food programs out there. Learn how they made it work. Check out this site for a list of some of them.