Changing Menus

Why school kitchens and dining halls could be the front line in the fight against obesity

by Noah Leavitt

There is no easy solution to the problem, but the kitchens in our nation's schools and colleges may prove to be the front line in battling the obesity epidemic.

Among those on that front line is registered dietitian Marcia Richards. Richards is a 1998 Continuing Education graduate with a degree in Health and a senior lecturer at Curry College.

Marsha Richards
Marcia Richards ‘98

Richards works at Jordan Hospital in Plymouth, and is one of dozens of Massachusetts dietitians implementing the state's "Mass in Motion" program. Launched in 2011, "Mass in Motion" works to help 52 communities implement new federal lunch regulations.

Those new regulations took effect in 2012-the first changes since 1995. And, they aim to overhaul meals at public schools by increasing the required servings of whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

For Richards, those regulations should set the standard for a lifetime of basic, healthy eating.

"Less processed food, less fast food, less eating out, and more growing your own. I still think no matter how busy we are we can find a way to eat healthy. Eating healthy is not hard. Eating healthy is easy and it's affordable. A lot of people are under the impression that it's not, so I'm really working on helping to change that culture in the town of Plymouth."

30 miles to the north, there is another Curry graduate working to change the perception of the school cafeteria.

At Milton Academy, Curry MBA alumnus Joe Hines '10 oversees a staff of five culinary school trained chefs who are making fresh soups and salads, baking their own pastries and breads, and even making homemade cheese.

Hines knows the days of the traditional cafeteria are over.

"Our clients, they're just foodies," says Hines. He's employed by Flik Independent School Dining. The company provides meals to students, faculty, and staff at 137 schools-but Milton Academy is one of its biggest-and most prestigious clients. "They expect good food, they know they're not going to have artificial flavors but the food is still going to taste great."

Joseph Hines '10
Joseph Hines ‘10

Just a few miles down the road, on the campus of Curry College, students are demanding many of those same things.

Sodexo Executive Chef Christian King is responsible for serving more than 11,000 meals a week. During one busy lunch rush, his team can be spotted grilling up fresh chicken breasts, or perfectly searing fillets of Cajun salmon. For King, it's important to have variety-to please all the different appetites being served every day.

"I need to have food that's have the student that wants the chicken have the student that wants the vegan plate. I start with [a] 16-week menu and by week three I blow it up and create another one," King says. "Every year, the students are more educated about food, especially with all the food shows. The days of the cafeteria are over. Students really embrace our marketplace, they love the setup, they love that we're doing more of what I like to call adult food."

Students at Curry are also taking a more active role in what they eat. Keith Meal is the General Manager for Sodexo, and manages the work done by King and his staff.

Meal says, "I tell the students, ‘tell us what you want, tell us what you mean.' When you say more healthy choices, what do you mean? The students that are coming in have gone to high schools where they offer a food service similar to us. They already have expectations set."

But, before students can even reach that point, they will be eating hundreds-if not thousands-of meals at their secondary schools and high schools; meals that could play a major role in establishing eating habits for life.

That's part of the challenge for Marcia Richards in Plymouth. She must work with the town's Food Service Director Patrick Van Cott to craft nutritious meals for 8,000 students at 13 schools. That likely means Richards and Van Cott will have to create 13 different menus.

"We're going to be looking at the data, working with the parents, working with the schools, just trying to find some creative ways that we can get kids to try something new," Richards says. ‘It's one thing to serve the food, but we want them to eat it too."

One way to do that is by offering so-called competitive foods-those additional items not offered under the federal school lunch program. "Mass in Motion" requires those items to be healthy and nutritionally balanced as well.

"He [Van Cott] is already doing whole grain crusts on his pizza," Richards explains. "They're all homemade. They have probably the best spaghetti sauce you could probably ever have-that's homemade too. They do have chicken nuggets on the menu, but it's whole meat chicken, and the bread crumbs are a whole grain crumb. And they're baked. There are no fryolators-that's another misconception."

Fresh, homemade food is not cheap. That's why the Plymouth schools receive a 6-cent reimbursement for every meal they serve that meets the federal guidelines. That money helps fund those competitive foods.

But, funding is not the only challenge that Richards and others face as they seek to revamp school lunches.

"The challenges right now are educating both the parents and the kids that these are good things. Encouraging kids to try a new food that they might not have tried. Right now, 50% of the grains have to be whole grains and by 2014 it's 100%. Some kids, they've never had whole grains, but they might like them if they tried them."

Richards also says there has been some backlash from students and parents.

"There has been some negative feelings associated with the new regulations, that the kids are hungry, they're not getting enough to eat now, the portion sizes are small. It's a shift that it's more fruits, more vegetables, more whole grains, [and] less of the refined carbohydrates, less of the fattier things. It's a shift in the type of food, but it's really a good thing, because it's more nutritious."

Changing habits is also on the menu at Milton Academy and Curry College. Both Hines and King say that more students are coming to them asking for healthier meals, or more options in the dining hall. But, both men are also taking a proactive approach.

For Hines, that includes educating students about foods they may not normally eat. Take that hand-made cheese for example. It was paneer-made to celebrate the Hindu New Year called Diwali.

"Not only was it an incredible meal to partake in, but it was an educational moment as well," Hines says. And that happens frequently-students will eat a new type of food, and then discuss it in their classrooms. As Hines explains, "Nutrition is very important to Milton. Health and wellness are very important, and the dining room is the center of their whole program."

The challenge is admittedly a little tougher for King at Curry College. By the time most students reach college, their eating habits are pretty well established. But King says it's his job to try and change those habits.

"I'm not here to feed you burgers and hot dogs every day. You're going to be at a business meeting in four years and the CEO's going to order everybody lunch and say ‘what do you want for lunch?' If you say you want a chicken patty with Frank's Red Hot on it, everyone's going to look at you a little strange."

Chris Wilson, Class of 2013. and Megan Frosheiser, Class of 2013, compete in Curry College’s “Battle of the Chefs.”
Chris Wilson '13
Megan Frosheiser '13
at "Battle of the Chefs"

King is also trying to broaden student's food horizons. A recent "Exotic Explorers Theme Dinner" featured rattlesnake and a five-pound ostrich egg. He also occasionally hosts a "Battle of the Chefs" at the Student Center, where participants get to feel the heat in the kitchen while taking on unique cooking challenges.

But, there is also a serious side to King's education mission. He'll often go into the residence halls and show students how they can cook well on a budget. It's a twist on Richards' belief that eating healthy does not need to break the bank.

Local and sustainable. Those have been the key words in the food world for the past couple of years. And it's a trend that Hines, King, and Richards are all keenly aware of.

For Hines, local and sustainable are more than just buzzwords, or a passing fad. Those concepts actually played a major role in his CAPSTONE project at Curry College. He worked alongside classmates to examine environmentally conscious and affordable ways that dining facilities could provide "to-go" containers for meals.

Meantime on-campus at Milton Academy, the Dining Center serves only sustainable seafood, while an estimated 15 to 20% of all produce comes from local or regional farms.

"We source a lot of our produce from Jansal Valley Farm in Dartmouth, MA," Hines explains. "They have a greenhouse down there so a lot of our squash, apples, things of that nature come to us year round from there. We use all fresh herbs here; nothing comes out of the freezer. There are no artificial flavors or colors."

For King, local products mean that he's constantly adapting his menu.

"I get my produce from Costa, and Costa has a contract with Sodexo that will try to source locally as much as possible," King says. "We definitely promote local apples; we have signs all over the place, saying where they're from. I'm constantly on the phone with Costa [saying], ‘what do you have that's local?' Well it's parsnips so we're going to change next week's menu. We're not doing green beans, we're doing parsnips."

But, there is also a flipside to that for King. He realizes he can't always source locally. For example, students asking for fresh strawberries or blueberries in the middle of winter will be out of luck; they're just not in season. In those cases, frozen fruit may be shipped into Curry, but it's a sacrifice King is willing to make in order to give students more nutritious options.

Money is also a concern when you're trying to serve 11,000-plus meals a week. King knows he can't spend his entire budget solely on produce.
And that is a concern in Plymouth as well-as school officials look to feed those 8,000 students every day.

"The smaller farmers, they don't grow that much," Richards explains. "We do have a couple of farmers on our committee, so we are trying to think of ways to resolve that. One of the things we're hoping for is school gardens. We're hoping that will involve the kids and the community. They can grow their own food and it can go into the kitchen and the leftover waste part can go into composting. We're a long way off, but that's one of the things we're hoping for."

Sourcing local ingredients is just one part of a larger process taking place in Plymouth, across Massachusetts, and around the country. Richards is realistic. She knows dining habits won't change overnight. But, what's happening at Curry College and Milton Academy provides her with a sense of optimism; with each passing year, America's children are becoming more concerned and knowledgeable about the food they eat.

For Richards, that's the key to her work; the belief that changing habits at a young age will lead to healthier adults.

"The younger kids are, the more impressionable they are, and the more likely they are to try something new. As kids get older, they developmentally might not be willing to change as much. So, the more education we can do earlier, the better."


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