School lunch is about more than eating healthy in Miami-Dade; it’s about developing healthy habits that last a lifetime.
That’s the message district officials want to send to students and parents in the country’s fourth-largest school district, which serves nearly 200,000 lunches a day.
At an event to unveil the lunch menu for the coming school year, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho modeled the behavior that the district hopes students will emulate.
“It’s important to get salads, fruits and veggies before you get to the meats,” Carvalho told a group of students, reaching for a packaged salad before serving himself chicken wings.
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The students were sampling new additions to Miami-Dade’s lunch fare: vegetarian sliders, baked chicken wings and a sports energy drink for student athletes.
They were also helping themselves to heaping metal platters of school lunch staples like green beans, corn on the cob, spaghetti and French fries, along with fresh fruit and protein smoothies.
“Even some of the items that appear not to be healthy are,” Carvalho said. The bacon on the school bacon burgers? It’s actually turkey bacon. And the Monte Cristo sandwich, normally a fried ham and gooey cheese variation on the French croque-monsieur? Turkey ham and provolone between two whole wheat waffles.
That’s the challenge for schools everywhere: making nutritious food appealing to children. As school meals have gotten healthier, due in part to federal nutrition rules revised in 2012, some districts have seen a drop in the number of students eating school lunch.
We are changing the mind-set of our children to know that being healthy does not break the bank. Being healthy just takes a little extra effort.
Audra Wright, school district’s nutritional wellness coordinator
In Miami-Dade, where 74 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch because of their family’s income, the district faces the added challenge of serving hundreds of thousands of healthy meals a day on a limited budget.
In an effort to get kids excited about eating at school, Miami-Dade has brought popular food trends into the cafeteria: food trucks, farm-to-table dining, and even an app.
The initiatives are paying off, said Penny Parham, Miami-Dade’s administrative director of food and nutrition, noting that meal participation in Miami-Dade has actually gone up.
“They don’t always eat everything, but modeling what is good to choose from, having enough of the right choices to help balance, that has really been something we’ve worked very hard on,” she said. “We’ve really focused on trying to have enough choices where if a certain type of vegetable or salad isn’t what a kid would choose, they would be able to have a fruit or something else healthy that they will eat.”
Alvin Gainey, Miami-Dade PTA president, said his kids don’t mind the extra veggies. “My children have never been too picky of eaters; they’ve always been vegetable eaters so it’s not necessarily outside of their comfort zone,” he said, adding that the PTA is happy with the district’s transition to healthier food offerings.
More popular among most children than the extra greens and grains, however, is the food truck.
During the school year, the food truck travels around the county, parking on a different campus every day. Last year, the truck served 40,000 meals to Miami-Dade students, including breakfasts. Although the presentation is different, the food from the truck is the same type of fare offered in the cafeteria.
“It makes lunch fun,” Parham said. “The principals love it because it’s just a positive lunchtime experience, and the kids love it because it’s a different experience.”
200,000 The number of school lunches served every day at Miami-Dade public schools
About 50 elementary schools and K-8 centers also have their own gardens, funded by local nonprofit The Education Fund, which offer a living classroom for science lessons and, in some cases, grow food for the school cafeteria. Many of these schools also have compostable plates made of natural fibers, which replaced Styrofoam plates in 27 schools last year. Miami-Dade is expanding the environmentally friendly dishware to an additional 25 schools this year.
“Everything kind of goes together so that the kids get a seamless experience and they’re not just being shown healthy food in the cafeteria; they’re actually helping grow it,” Parham said. “We try to connect everything so there’s synergy.”
Audra Wright, the district’s nutritional wellness coordinator, said Miami-Dade’s goal is “making sure we give every child an opportunity to be exposed to a healthy lifestyle.”
“If a child is getting health lessons at school, that is transcending into the home,” said Wright, who oversees the school gardens program. “We are changing the mind-set of our children to know that being healthy does not break the bank. Being healthy just takes a little extra effort.”
Breakfast is another part of the push towards healthy eating habits. All students in Miami-Dade are entitled to a free breakfast, but getting them to eat it has been a struggle. Nationwide, Miami-Dade ranks among the large school districts with the lowest rates of breakfast participation.
“That’s a big message we want to remind everybody. The free breakfast is awesome. We want new students to know that every school and every student is welcome to breakfast,” Parham said.
Of course, no modern initiative would be complete without its own app. Or in this case, two of them. Miami-Dade has an app called the Dadeschools Mobile App that students and parents can use to view weekly menus, along with bus routes and class schedules.
Starting this year, the Florida Department of Agriculture is also offering an app. This one enables students and parents to get information on the ingredients and nutritional content of cafeteria food and give school districts feedback. So if children aren’t as excited about the healthier options as parents and district administrators are, they have an app to air their grievances.