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Posted at 8:13 AM ET, 11/11/2010

Yes, you can teach kids to eat broccoli

By Valerie Strauss

I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it, but at Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School in Washington D.C., chef Lisa Dobbs runs a food program that has young students relishing broccoli, tilapia encrusted with panko, boureks with beef or vegetables, and other foods not commonly embraced by kids.

The meals -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- are part of an overall wellness program at Stokes, where kids learn about nutrition in a sustained way and grow some of the produce they eat in a garden outside the school. They even put together a Taste of Stokes Cookbook, now in its second edition. (The recipes look delicious.)

The movement to bring healthy foods into public schools has been growing; first lady Michelle Obama has thrown herself in to it, and there are efforts around the country to change the traditional school meals lunches into something edible and nutritious.

I confess that I was somewhat skeptical at claims that young kids at school would consistently eat foods that are good for them. But the program at Stokes -- with pre-kindergarten and elementary school grades -- proves that kids will eat healthy food -- if the food is good, and they are given a chance to adjust to the fare.

Second-grader Arseme Adenew said she especially likes the cucumbers and broccoli on the salad bar; her friend Sucha Mulholland enjoys hotdogs, but loves the salad bar too.

A majority of the children at Stokes are from low-income families, meaning they are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, and a good number of them eat three meals a day at the school.

Dobbs, a nutrition expert and chef, and Stokes founder Linda Moore independently dreamed up the idea of a healthy school food program that doesn’t use processed foods, and the two immediately clicked when introduced by a mutual friend.

“One thing kids need to be successful in school and in life is good nutrition,” Dobbs said. “Everybody in Washington is so busy that kids get used to processed foods. But they need to learn what good food is, what good nutrition is, what a real serving size is. And if they get the experience early, they will have it for the rest of their lives.”

Dobbs and Moore got help from Whole Foods, which donated equipment and food (180 pounds of fresh tilapia a month), establishing a successful public-private partnership.
Such arrangements are at the core of a new national program called the No Kid Hungry Campaign, which is designed to create public-private partnerships to help hungry families get the food they need.

The announcement of the campaign was made by actor and anti-hunger activist Jeff Bridges, who visited Stokes Tuesday and addressed the National Press Club Wednesday.

Bridges founded the End Hunger Network in 1983 and now partners withShare Our Strength, a national nonprofit organization focused on ending childhood hunger in the United States. Their campaign is aimed at increasing access to nutrition education and to federal programs, including the school lunch and breakfast programs, as well as summer feeding programs.

Bridges stopped by Stokes with Share Our Strength founder and executive director Bill Shore to see a model program in action.

The kids at Stokes didn’t quite know what to make of the nutritious foods they were introduced to when Dobbs started the program early this year.

They threw food around, crawled up under the sneeze guards on the salad bar and piled up their plates with food that they ended up throwing out. Dobbs and Moore said that rules were quickly put in place -- you have to eat what you take, for example -- and things quickly settled down.

The one food Dobbs offered but the kids rejected: hummus, because to the kids, it looks like brown slop.

It is, of course, easier to set up this kind of a program at a charter school that has its own rules rather than in a district with many schools and many kitchens. But it is possible to do a version of this program everywhere, if education policymakers would understand that nutrition education is as important as algebra. With an obesity epidemic in this country, and 22.5 percent of U.S. children living in households experiencing food insecurity, this all matters in a big way.

Congress was supposed to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, the federal legislation that determines federally-funded school meals, this fall but has yet to do so. It has been a centerpiece of Michelle Obama’s campaign to curb childhood obesity by promoting healthful eating.

The House and Senate versions of the legislation are very different, most prominently in the Senate’s proposal to partially fund spending increases by taking a few billion dollars away from the federal program that provides food stamps to low-income families.

Anti-hunger activists complained to the Senate, as did scores of House Democrats, noting that it makes no sense to help hungry people by taking money from one food program to fund another.

Neither version of the bill has enough funding to truly transform school food but if passed the law could improve the health of children for generations.

Anybody who says it can’t be done should talk to Lisa Dobbs.

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By Valerie Strauss  | November 11, 2010; 8:13 AM ET
Categories:  Health  | Tags:  bill shore, charter schools, child nutrition act, elsie whitlow stokes, first lady michelle obama, jeff bridges, lisa dobbs, michelle obama, nutrition education, obesity, school lunch, share our strength, stokes charter school, whole foods  
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I believe that the DC public school system this year adopted a radical change in its food program and is delivering locally grown foods prepared in healthy fashion, relying less on the food packagers.

This is an ongoing story that it will be worth tracking.

Posted by: TaylorWalsh | November 11, 2010 6:02 PM | Report abuse

It would be useful to find out how much in private funding this food program is getting to supplement the meager National School Lunch Program subsidy.

Unfortunately, it's rarely (if ever) as easy as Dobbs and Moore have found -- whatever their secret for both procuring enough additional resources to significantly improve the food and gettin the kids to eat unfamiliar foods, it is not simple to replicate.

For example, in the highly publicized Berkeley (CA) school food makeover, the number of students eating the school meals dropped after the food was improved.

Author Janet Poppendieck ("Free for All") should be everyone's guru on the complexities of school food issues. As she says, it takes a hero or a saint or both (and a whole lot more money) to make even small improvements in school food, and it shouldn't be that way.

By the way, I believe that most large districts are more like ours here in San Francisco -- many schools and almost no kitchens, rather than many schools and many kitchens. The National School Lunch Program used to provide funds to maintain and upgrade kitchen equipment, but that was ended during the Reagan administration. Now, schools that appear to the naked eye to have kitchens generally have warming ovens and refrigerators, not working kitchens.

Also, last I heard, the increase being proposed under the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act is 6 cents per lunch.

Posted by: CarolineSF | November 11, 2010 9:34 PM | Report abuse

Interesting article, except for the comment about the obesity epidemic, which has very little to do with kids' diets. Kids (and adults) are getting fat because of lack of exercise, mostly on account of computers. I don't care how healthy your diet is, if you sit at a keyboard or stand around tweeting most of your day, you're at risk. No easy solutions on this one.

Posted by: mightythor | November 12, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

Kids--and adults--aren't obese because of computers. People are not getting enough exercise becasue sports fanatics and phys ed teachers have convinced them that exercise is only exercise if they are wearing special clothing, keeping statistics about it, or competing. Walking to the store, through a park, or around the block is no longer considered exercise because there is no special outfit for it and no standards about your heart rate or time.

It's impossible anyway--the store is in a shopping center, at the far end of a large parking lot that is dangerous to walk though (they are even dangerous to drive through, with so many people using cell phones instead of watching traffic!), even assuming there are any sidewalks and the drivers on the streets don't deliberately swerve to splash pedestrians.

Forget the improved diets--improve walking conditions and decrease organized sports if you want kids to lose weight.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | November 13, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

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