On Monday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack kicked off National School Lunch Week by visiting West Elementary School in Knoxville, Iowa. The school has achieved a gold-level ranking in the USDA's Healthier US School Challenge, which challenges schools to provide healthier food choices, nutrition education and physical activity.
School lunches have improved a great deal since National School Lunch Week was created by presidential proclamation in 1963 to promote the National School Lunch Program. However, it has only been recently that Farm To School has been added into the mix and programs bringing fresh, local produce into schools have really taken off.
It wasn't that long ago that I had my first school lunch. I didn't have them often because Mother knew best and would pack me healthy lunches, but when I did they were a greasy treat made up of french fries, tater tots, pizza and a never ending supply of ketchup packets. Through elementary, middle and high school nothing seemed to change except the serving size. Even now that I am in college, those food options still exist. But now we have additional options also available.
I have seen the change firsthand. My school opened a new cafeteria this fall featuring twelve different food stations all serving up something different and while the pizza, burgers and infamous french fries are still there, I find myself heading for different options—the salad bar, made to order rice dishes and, my favorite, the sushi bar.
Even more, the cafeteria is certified 'green' because of efforts such as serving local produce and fruit, sustainable seafood and cage-free eggs. I know I'm lucky; friends come to visit and they are amazed and jealous that we have such healthy and great tasting food. What they don't realize is that they can work to have it to. If you check out Farm Aid's Farm to School 101 Toolkit you can learn how to get started, read about success stories, figure out how to overcome obstacles and take advantage of the resources and funding already available.
So moms, dads, teachers and students like me, take some time to bring fresh, local produce into your school and support a local farmer. You and your kids, and your local farmers too, will reap the benefits.