Green, Healthy School Lunch – For Real

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[Editor’s Note: Information about the Chicago Public School System and clarification on charter school menus was added to the first section, fourth and fifth paragraphs of this article on March 4, 2011.]

Soy-glazed, sustainable salmon isn’t part of your typical lunch at a Chicago public school. Nor are organic vegetables from the schoolyard, fresh daisies on the cafeteria tables or internationally-themed menus that kids help prepare.

Students at Chicago's Academy for Global Citizenship gather for lunch. All meals and snacks at AGC are organic. Photo: Alison Neumer Lara, Earth911

But Academy for Global Citizenship (AGC), a charter school on the city’s southwest side, is far from typical in many respects and thanks to its overall health and wellness mission, maintains an all-organic kitchen serving fresh, whole and even local foods for breakfast, lunch and snacks.

On a recent winter weekday, third graders lined up for vegetarian shepherd’s pie, sautéed spinach and fresh-cut fruit, then headed to tables stocked with half-gallon cartons of organic milk, pitchers of water and real glassware. Posters on the wall touted family farming.

According to AGC chef Stephen Menyhart, who occasionally trains cooks at other schools in how to handle fresh foods, AGC is able to raise the bar in its cafeteria thanks, in part, to efforts by the Chicago Public School system itself.

As a charter school, AGC has more leeway with its menus than other public schools, but still works with the same food service operation, which is investing in local produce, for example.

What Makes a Healthier School Lunch?

Despite good intentions, however, and even with the new $4.5 billion Child Nutrition Act – signed by President Obama into law in December – national school food guidelines still permit the likes of sugary strawberry milk and other processed foods.

Plus, as Menyhart pointed out, many school kitchen staffs are simply not prepared for changes like salad bars, so the produce goes to waste and students don’t benefit.

Menyhart sees the difference at a place like AGC. “These kids eat really well,” he said. Breakfast is required, and as a result, students ready and energized for class.

Pitchers of flowers for every cafeteria table add to the friendly, family meal atmosphere at AGC. Photo: Alison Neumer Lara, Earth911

The students themselves seem to enjoy it, too. Sitting with her friends, Karoline, 8, named many of her favorite lunches, including “rainbow pizza” (whole wheat crust covered with veggies).

She and classmate Joey, 9, said they’re looking forward to the Spanish-themed International Day when they’ll have the chance to play sous chef in the school kitchen.

With about 45 children per grade and only four grades (K-3) at this point, cooking alongside Menyhart is one of many intimate opportunities students have to learn about food and nutrition.

Kids help plan, plant and tend the garden beds that flank the playground, as well as care for the school’s chickens. The school holds regular cooking classes for children with their parents or grandparents.

“It’s a creative process of learning about culture and nutrition,” said school Founder and Executive Director Sarah Elizabeth Ippel. Such a multifaceted approach supports overall wellness and teaches sustainability, she added.

The Academy, which opened in 2008 and plans to expand to eighth grade by 2016, already emphasizes environmental stewardship throughout its curriculum and physical plant. Recycling and composting are part of the “No Waste Club,” the yard includes solar panels and a mini windmill, and every classroom has its own vermicomposting bin.

But it does all come back to the kitchen, said Dan Schnitzer, the school’s director of sustainability and operations.

“We just believe passionately that food is connected to everything,” he said.

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