Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Food in Our Schools

The 2nd part of the Temple U. Food Assessment of Norristown dealt with food in our schools. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised by how many programs are in place not only to improve the nutrition of the food served to our kids, but to educate them on where their food comes from and what's healthy.

But let me go in order. The assessment began by saying that 76% of Norristown students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches. They didn't say how the program works or if all the kids who qualify receive the benefit. The free/cheap meal program also includes breakfast, but the report didn't say if Norristown offered breakfast to students. They only mentioned lunch.

3 schools in the district (out of 10) have gardens. Paul Fly Elementary's garden seems to be maintained by teachers and cafeteria staff and the harvest supplies the cafeteria. Leftover food is sent to a center in Glenside which collects surplus produce from home and community gardens for Philabundance. Nothing in the report about whether students get to work in the garden. And while I think supplying Philabundance is admirable, I'd rather see the surplus food go to the food banks or other distribution centers right here in Norristown.

Stewart Middle School's garden grows rosemary, tomatoes, lettuce and oranges. All that was said otherwise was that the garden won a grant for "their effort to grow crops while creating a peaceful atmosphere for students and staff." Nothing about whether students work the garden, what they're learning, or where the food goes.

Norristown Area High has a hot house garden in which students grow veggies during the school year. In the summer, the custodian and volunteers keep the garden going. It grows tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, lettuce and peppers. The report doesn't say where the food goes.

Hancock Elementary had a garden in the summer of 2013, begun by cafeteria staff. The site was flooded and vandalized so the idea was abandoned.

Personally, I'd like to see a garden of some sort at every school. I've learned more biology, ecology, earth science, meteorology and problem-solving from my garden than anywhere else. And of course, gardens are the best way to teach about food sources, seasonal food cycles, and nutrition. Once they're established, they don't cost much to maintain and the school gets fresh food as a by-product. Right now, the elementary schools that would benefit most--Gotwals, for instance, where 98% of the students qualify for free or reduced price meals--have no garden.

Norristown High holds an annual food festival at the end of each year, with healthy food vendors and exhibits. Gift cards and prizes are raffled off to participating students.

There is a Fresh Fruit and Veggie Program that delivers fresh produce to all the elementary schools on Thursdays. The food is accompanied by a discussion of the vitamins and minerals in each veggie category. The Temple report says that it allows students "the opportunity to taste exotic vegetables like purple cauliflower, eggplant and yams." (Since when are eggplant and yams considered exotic?)

A grant program called Smart Partner sent a chef to conduct a 2-hour training session in preparing healthier meal options for all food service staff in the district. The description of this session was sketchy, so I'm not sure what was taught. 2 hours doesn't seem like enough time to me.

Last March, Eisenhower Middle School launched an "Eatiquette" Program. Every Thursday, students eat family style. Each table has a captain--a student who assists in serving the food and who describes the foods served that day, which are made from scratch, from local, in-season fruits and vegetables. The school cooking staff uses a web program to plan meals using in-season foods. (This one might be my favorite program of them all, after the gardens.)

Eisenhower also has Smoothies, a program that makes smoothies for students at no-cost, using local and in-season fruits. If they can get the grant again next year, they hope to expand the program to other district schools.

The Temple report mentions a "Healthy Times" in-school newsletter which is written by and for students, including recipes, food events, ideas for schools, nutrition info and fitness tips.  The report doesn't say if there's a separate newsletter staff in each school, or if all the students in the district receive it.

The report mentioned The Food Trust Program, present in all the schools, but didn't say what it is, so I looked it up. Apparently they're a partner organization that sends educators, coordinators and other specialists into the schools to teach nutrition, food sources, cooking, etc., and to support teachers and cafeteria staff in the teaching of these subjects.

Norristown High was supposed to start, last spring, having local salad greens and topping available each day. The Temple report didn't mention if this actually happened.

Under Temple's recommendations in this area is a Backpack Program for low income students in which they'd receive a backpack of non-perishable items to take home with them. The report didn't specify how often, but the logic is, if you're giving kids a free or reduced price lunch, it doesn't guarantee they'll get good or adequate food at night or on weekends. I can speak to this--when I taught at Stewart and had cafeteria duty, every now and then a kid would come up to me asking for enough change to get ice cream. I was pretty sure most of those kids didn't have the money to buy lunch at all. I could also tell in my afternoon classes which kids weren't eating well--only sugary foods or nothing at all. That was before the free lunch program. It's definitely needed, and a backpack program would help whole families.

They also stated that 5 out of 6 eligible kids don't take advantage of the summer meal programs we have in Norristown. Temple recommended that the school district send home a list of the programs in place before summer begins.

So that's Temple U's report on Food in Our Schools. A lot of great programs in place, but so much more that could be done.

Next week I'll cover their other topics: Urban Agriculture and Emergency Food. As I said yesterday, you can read the whole report at

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