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When she saw the “convenient junk food” her son was eating for lunch, Kiersten Firquain did more than start packing a bag for him. She launched a whole farm-to-school program called Bistro Kids to revamp how students eat, including menus that focus on fresh, local foods; visits from farmers; cooking lessons and school gardens. It serves 5,000 meals a day in Kansas City and St. Louis area schools and 6,000 snacks a day in YMCA after-school programs.
“I remember when the lunch ladies made everything from scratch, and my goal is to get that back,” she said in a recent interview with The Hartman Group.
She’s not alone. Choicelunch, Revolution Foods and a host of other programs are working to improve school lunches and, in the process, people’s health and lives.
They are working to undo the repercussions of a generation of children brought up during a revolution in food culture. Children today are raised both at home and in public schools to be mindful of the ingredients in foods, differences between food types (e.g., organic vs. conventional, fresh and local) and the benefits of diet and exercise.
Bistro Kids has been so successful that some children from the program, which started in 2006, have gone on to culinary school and come back to work as chefs for the program. In 2011, Bistro Kids was bought by Treat America, an acquisition that means additional resources and talent.
Here’s what The Hartman Group learned from Firquain about bringing fresh, healthy food into classrooms and how that translates into better eating at home:
Taste bud retraining
“It just takes time. When we first arrive at a school, the kids may say the fruit is not sweet enough, because they’re used to sugary canned fruits. We’ve had some who didn’t know a peach was fuzzy and had a pit. It’s about positive exposures to new foods and retraining your taste buds. When you stop eating sugar and highly processed foods, it’s been our experience it can take 10 to 15 positive exposures before students’ taste buds readjust.”
Melon and bison
“We’re exposing them to foods they might not be used to seeing. For example, being in the Midwest in the summer months, we have local melon in season, including watermelons that can be yellow or orange. As long as we do taste tests in the classroom, and in culinary class the kids make something like a watermelon smoothie, then when they see it on the lunch tray, they are much more accepting of trying new foods.
“Similarly, we can’t just say ‘February is bison month’ and hand them a bison stick. We bring the bison farmer in, and he brings his bison hide and talks about the bison, and they love it. Nutrition education is key to the success of our program.”
Importance of distribution
“The thing we’ve seen progress with getting access to local food is having big distribution centers, the Syscos of the world, agree to not only carry local products but at fair prices schools can afford. When we started, we immediately partnered with a local co-op called Good Nature Family Farms. Rather than have 100 different farmers deliver to schools, they distribute through Ball’s Central Warehouse. That means sustainable, healthy, local food is readily available … not just in schools, but for families shopping for products they see their students eating every day.”
“When we started eight years ago, farm-to-school was very new. Now there’s a national conference that draws 1,500 people, and eating local has gained traction with the current administration’s focus on school gardens and healthy moving. We believe that if you get people to realize that knowing their food and their farmer is important, it’s better for the students and the environment. We’re proud that our local dollars stay in the community and help sustain small, family farmers.”
Changes in parents
“Nutrition education affects parents, who come to see what their kids are eating and hear why we think it’s important. We talk about reading labels and, if you can’t pronounce it, don’t put it in your body.
“We recommend if you can make just one change, switch to local food. That’s become easier now that many items are pretty much cost comparative. We’ve done workshops on eating family dinners together and having an appreciation for what you’re eating and sharing that experience.
“It’s what we do in classrooms with family-style service. Kids are taught what a proper portion is, self-service and cleaning up their own area.”
Consumers drive change
“Companies respond to consumers. For example, we’re seeing macaroni and cheese products take the artificial colors out. We’re seeing cereals becoming whole-grain. We’ve seen a variety of products that meet our healthy criteria—like whole-food products. There didn’t used to be any granola bars that met our specifications, and now there’s almost a whole aisle in the grocery stores dedicated to healthy food bars.
“Our mission is to serve healthy, locally sourced meals to as many students as possible, and today it’s easier than ever before.”
The new era of nutrition comes from increasing public scrutiny of not only food and beverage products but the occasions and settings in which children consume food. As a result, there is a nascent market for products that reflect the new way of raising children to understand what's "good" and "bad" in terms of diets and food behaviors.
The seeds of that new cultural outlook are being sown through the efforts and programs of people like Kiersten Firquain and Bistro Kids.