School lunch has remained a topic of national discussion since First Lady Michelle Obama helped encourage Congress to pass the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act in 2010. While schools may have had success integrating healthier options into lunch rooms, getting kids to like those options is a whole different challenge.
The Abeona House is a New Orleans preschool that’s working to address this issue, by introducing farm-to-table values to children from the very start.
A group of three year olds are enjoying their lunch inside a classroom of the Abeona House Child Discovery Center. Seated at two long tables, forks in hand, these kids are really into talking about what’s on their plate.
Today it’s mac-and-cheese, followed by tomorrow’s tuna sandwich and cucumber salad, Thursday’s lentil burgers and pita bread, and Friday is, of course, pizza day. Whole wheat pizza day.
All the kids here know Abeona’s Chef Sarah Bouley, who cooks, plates and serves the student meals.
"Today the mac and cheese was our first ever dish served at Abeona house," says Bouley. "In that macaroni is cauliflower, yogurt, a little Monterey Jack blend, and a classic béchamel sauce… and the kids love it!"
This would be impossible without a commercial kitchen, says Emmy Odwyer, founding executive director of Abeona House. She founded the center after Hurricane Katrina when she noticed a lack of childcare options. It started small: 30 kids in a 100-year-old shotgun house — that definitely did not have a commercial kitchen. When Odwyer saw some available space at First Grace Methodist Church in 2011, its big kitchen was a selling point. This was the same time Odwyer remembers seeing Chef Sarah’s application for running the food program, she recalls.
"We asked for someone who would help us develop a farm-to-table, locally-sourced food program. I remember one of the items on her proposed menu was pink pancakes… you know, pancakes with beet juice."
Chef Sarah has quite a few tricks up her sleeve that get children to try, and to enjoy, the challenging foods that are hard to sell. Like mushrooms.
"I remember we used to get shiitake mushrooms by the box, and I used to roast them so they were real crispy and dry, and the preschoolers were eating them like chips, you know? And one girl said, ‘You cannot eat those, they’re mushrooms!’ and the other girl said 'No, they’re not mushrooms, they’re good!'"
And, like everything else, it all comes down to peer pressure. Odwyer has seen this domino effect in action. If one kid likes it, it must be good…
"A lot of it was the influence of the peers, having an exciting attitude. If Cadence is telling Oliver that the hummus is really tasty, he’s gonna give it a try. So it was interesting to watch the children change."
Healthy food initiatives have been implemented in schools across the country, due to the $11 billion National School Lunch Program. The program reimburses participating schools for meals served, and provides access to fresh food at a lower price. The problem is, the kids aren’t eating the new options, and money is being wasted on uneaten, tossed food. Last month, CBS reported that kids in the 100,000 schools that signed up for the program are ending up "too hungry to learn", and schools are, one by one, opting out of the program.
So why is an initiative that’s struggling to get kids on board working for this group of toddlers? It's because they're toddlers, Bouley says.
"I’ve come to realize it’s really about getting the fresh foods into the little guys, because once they’ve had it when they’re little, they’re much more comfortable when they’re older. When these kids are seven and eight they’re just gonna be more open to food and just desire more nutrients, because their body knows what that does. It just becomes natural."
Bouley spends $2000 a month to feed 58 kids. She does all the shopping at local grocery stores and small urban farms, and picks herbs from the Abeona House garden. Some of her budget comes from the monthly tuition parents pay to the center.
Most public schools don’t get any extra revenue to pay for a food program like the one Bouley runs, but Odweyer is working on it. Abeona House is part of the Nola Early Learning Alliance, "So we're reaching out through that partnership to childcare centers to start locally sourcing their food", says Odwyer.
"We’re gonna start with milk, because everyone uses hundreds of gallons of milk a month, and that’s an easy way to get everyone in on the conversation," she says. "And then, once everyone starts realizing the cost savings from that bulk purchasing, we can talk about the rest of the serving."
Abeona House is one of several organizations focused on better in schools, including Rethink and the Edible Schoolyard. But most kids are offered pre-made, reheated, cheaper food each day for lunch. Getting healthier, fresher food to older kids in larger schools will take a ground-up approach.
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction (Sept. 30, 2013): The Abeona House spends about $2000 a month to feed their students, not $2000 per week.