(This is a guest post by Erin McGonegle Crespi, Regional Director of Operations of Achievement First Charter Schools. She holds a BS in Natural Resources and Education from Cornell, and an MST in Science Education from Pace University. She taught 6th-8th Grade Science at MS 80 in the Bronx from 2006-2009, and founded Achievement First Brownsville Middle School as Director of School Operations in 2012.)
The New York City Department of Education’s Office of Food & Nutrition Services has made tremendous strides to improve the nutrition of the meals being offered. Coupled with the passing of the 2010 Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act, which called for increased whole grains, fruits, and vegetables, we saw an overall increase in the health-state of school lunches—a change we, sadly, may see revert back due to a new set of rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Even when healthy meals are available, though, the challenge remains how to encourage students to actually select these meals, rather than less healthy alternative options—whether those offered by their schools, or following a quick trip to the local corner store for chips or soda.
As a former teacher, I’ve witnessed the results of what happens when students are properly nourished at lunchtime. They are more focused in the classroom, exhibit better behavior choices, and are, frankly, in a better position to learn. Without access to high-quality, healthy foods and nutrition education, children are unable to perform their best in the classroom, and they are at a high risk for preventable diseases, like diabetes and obesity.
With around 90 percent of Achievement First students qualifying for the Free or Reduced-Price Lunch Program, these meals are sometimes the sole source of food and nutrition available to students in a given day. But, despite the benefits, even when we put a healthy meal on their plates, we know all too well that it doesn’t guarantee it will get eaten.
The stakes are high to ensure that school meals are ones that our kids want to eat, rather than having them spend their precious dollars on foods that are generally more affordable but less nutritious. How, though, are we able to move from merely offering nutritious school meals to putting forth delicious meals that kids readily choose with excitement?
The answer lies in listening to students. Through our partnership with Revolution Foods, we work with our kids and their families to collectively select and embrace healthy meals, and in turn, we are more successful in getting students to actually try and enjoy eating new foods.
We regularly conduct student surveys, hold taste testings, and offer meals that both reflect the cultural diversity of our community and student preferences such as jerk chicken drumstick with pineapple carrot rice, and chicken Caesar wraps. We invite both students and parents into the conversation about our menus to increase the exposure and curiosity about new tastes and flavors. By involving students, we’re helping them become directly interested and invested in their own nutrition so that they understand how and why they are fueling their bodies and brains.
I see the impact of this student-centered approach play out at our Achievement First Brownsville Elementary and Middle School campus in Brooklyn. Here, you can tell that students enjoy eating healthy. They’re not eating chips for breakfast. They’re scooping up a whole wheat cinnamon crumble, and we hear them calling it a “dream.”
More of our kids are eating better breakfasts and lunches, and more of them are eating their meals, in general. We know this is a part of what’s fueling our students to make tremendous academic gains. The past two years, we have seen improvements in both English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics on the NY state exams, and the benefit of healthy meals driving student academic achievement is echoed in a recent impact study commissioned by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Today, eight of our campuses engage with Revolution Foods’ healthy meal programs, serving nearly 3,200 students. It’s our hope that we can expand this program to more students in order to support the communities that we serve.
Ensuring students have healthy meals is any community’s collective responsibility. We don’t have to set a heap of nutritious, but unappealing foods on their plates and implore them, without success, to “eat their veggies.” We also don’t have to resign ourselves to offering up the processed junk food that we know will get eaten. What we have to do is to listen to our students, their families, and partner together to make sure the school meals they receive are deliciously irresistible fuel for their success.