Why does school food matter? Kathleen DeChadenedes, director of the Orfalea Foundation’s School Food Initiative, explains how meals can make a difference and what can be done to change the way children eat.
What is the School Food Initiative and what is your vision?
The mission of the School Food Initiative is to empower the public schools of Santa Barbara County to implement and sustain nourishing cook-from-scratch food service operations. We envision that given our inputs of culinary training for food service workers, grants for equipment and infrastructure, ongoing technical support by a team of chefs in the field and garden-based food literacy education, school food service operations will be financially viable, students will be offered appealing, nutritious food choices and food literacy will be a valued part of a student’s education.
What is your strategy for connecting the lunchroom, the garden and the classroom?
We were able to broker an agreement between our county Environmental Health Division and the Agriculture Commissioner to be able to include school garden produce in school meals. Seeing garden produce advertised on the salad bar helps to integrate garden-based learning into an experience that transcends a typical school lesson. We offer “Chefs in the Garden” events that feature taste education, cooking demonstrations using garden produce and suggestions for ways that teachers can incorporate the event themes into the curriculum. We’ve also promoted the mention of the lunch special as part of daily announcements, encouraging faculty and staff to buy meals in the cafeteria and Workplace Wellness as part of a school district’s Wellness Policy.
What are the biggest challenges, and rewards, of cooked-from-scratch meals?
Time to eat remains an obstacle, particularly as it applies to consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables and those scratch-cooked items that require the use of eating utensils. Sometimes factors that have nothing to do with food quality such as an uninviting dining area or long lines can prevent students from participating in school meals. We’ve received countless photos of entrees from food service workers who are bursting with pride at their accomplishments and thrilled that the students complimented the food. Some kids even ask for recipes to bring home. Those districts that started scratch cooking before the implementation of the new USDA regulations have had an easier time complying with the new requirements because they control what goes into the menu items.
What inspiring transformations have you seen in schools?
Here in Santa Barbara County, I’ve seen that aspiring to serve healthy and appealing school meals has become the norm rather than the exception. Individual schools and a few school districts have demonstrated their commitments to their school gardens by funding a dedicated garden manager. We’ve seen the Food Service Directors form a support network to share the successes and challenges of scratch-cooking, commodity ordering and local procurement. Food Service Directors have prompted a return to washable dinnerware from using disposables to reinforce the message that the way we eat, as well as what we eat, has environmental consequences.
What does food literacy mean to you?
Food Literacy encompasses an understanding of the steps necessary to get food from the field to the table, knowledge of a wide range of edible plants and animal-based foods and the cultural contexts for food consumption. Gardening, cooking and dining etiquette are all part of food literacy. In a perfect world, lunch would be a class.
About Kathleen DeChadenedes
As director of the Orfalea Foundation’s School Food Initiative, Kathleen DeChadenedes works to promote food literacy and support better food in schools, helping the children of California’s Santa Barbara County to make healthy food choices today and throughout their lives.More: Changing the Menu, Edible Education, Food and Health, Food Policy, School Gardens, School Lunch, Schools, Youth