School Lunch Makeovers

By Kathleen Shannon

Obesity is a chronic national health issue and Lehigh Valley food activists are working hard to educate both kids and adults about the benefits of eating healthy.

Despite the best intentioned efforts of many policymakers and educators, two out of three adults are overweight or obese and 30% of students in the United States are as well.   Eating less and exercising more, long advocated as the answer to weight problems, is not always the best solution.  A switch to healthier foods, not just less food, is what food activists want.

Schools have become the focus for change because nutrition affects how children learn. The US Department of Education has found that overweight children had significantly lower math and reading test scores compared with nonoverweight children in third grade The American School Health Association reports that fourth-grade students with poor protein intake scored significantly lower on achievement tests than students meeting adequate nutritional standards.

Local Action

Many local school districts are actively engaged in providing healthier food choices for students.  At Broughal Middle School in Bethlehem, a 21st Century Community Center venue for students at low performing schools, Principal Edward Docalovich has organized cooking and gardening clubs after school and created a school vegetable garden on Lehigh University’s campus so city children can learn where healthy food actually comes from.

Lori Seier, Northwestern School District’s food service supervisor, is using a $2,400 Healthier US School Challenge state grant to introduce elementary school students to wholesome foods on a gradual basis, primarily beans.  Burritos, turkey chili and hummus have been added to the school’s menus to provide options to the traditional pizza and chicken nuggets that kids have learned to love – and they’re actually going for the flavorful, more nutritious bean dishes, Seier says.

East Penn School District was an early proponent of BMI (body mass index) testing in schools, and sent letters home to parents of obese and overweight children as early as 2001, angering many parents who believed it was none of the district’s business. The so-called “fat letters” gained national attention, with Jay Leno joking about the letters on The Tonight Show.

But the program continued and became a model for the state. In 2005, the PA Department of Education mandated BMI determination for all students, kindergarten through 12th grade.

An Even Bigger Picture

School districts considerably larger than those in the Lehigh Valley have exponentially larger problems. Baltimore, Maryland’s school district, home to 87,000 students, realized it had major food issues when several teenage students addressed the school board about horrible food quality, demonstrating their concerns with a plate, that when turned upside down, had cooked, then frozen, then reheated pre-plated food “glued” to it.  Baltimore brought in Tony Geraci, chef, food manufacturer and food service director, to turn around the severely “ill” cafeterias while at the same time educating students about healthy foods and eating habits.

Emmy award winning documentary producer and director Richard Chisolm, a resident of the Baltimore area, learned of the school district’s problems in 2008 and approached Geraci about creating a film following his progress with the district.  “I was inspired to make the film because as a parent and citizen I saw school food as a huge problem that needed attention and I wanted to tell the story of an ambitious reformer who was poised to make a difference,” says Chisolm.

What Geraci encountered in Baltimore is explored in Chisom’s 2011 documentary, “Cafeteria Man.”  He came across constant surprises during his three year tenure: some children had never seen or eaten a real peach, the district was bringing in pre-plated food cooked hundreds of miles away and many Baltimore bureaucrats resisted his efforts for positive change.  His ideas to save money, educate students about healthy food, and provide more nutritious lunches were so hated by some in Baltimore that Geraci received numerous death threats.

Bringing it Home

Geraci’s successes in Baltimore – a 40 acre district farm that produces food used in educational programs, purchasing all foods from within Maryland, eliminating all pre-plated meals and developing a central kitchen for the entire district – were highlighted in a presentation last fall at Broughal Middle School that was organized by the Kellwyn Foundation of Bethlehem.

After sampling local foods from seven growers advocating “eat local, eat fresh” and viewing “Cafeteria Man,” the audience of nearly 150 questioned panel members Richard Chisolm, Robert Irving, Ed Docalovich and Jeff Frank about the need for cultural change promoting healthy foods.

Robert Irving, account rep for Sodexo at Lehigh Valley Health Network, said Sodexo has installed an on-site vegetable garden at LVHN – Cedar Crest, and uses the vegetables in the hospital cafeteria.  A farmer’s market is held on the hospital campus, providing fresh, local fruits and vegetables to employees and visitors. Irving told the audience, “It all has to start at home. It has to start early. Parents have to buy into healthy food.”  He agreed with audience members suggesting contract changes be made to provide healthier foods because, “We’re in business to make money, but need to implement what a client wants.”

Chisolm acknowledged that his film was a “65-minute wink” at a severe health crisis, and that it’s meant to advance national conversation about healthy food choices.  He doesn’t believe that obesity and poor food selection is an economic problem as many claim, due to prepackaged, processed foods often less expensive than fresh, natural produce, but is a combination of cultural influences, education and economics. “People don’t cook anymore,” he said, “they just don’t have time. So they buy take out or quick to prepare processed meals.”

Jeff Frank, owner of Liberty Gardens in Coopersburg, provides produce to local and New York City restaurants.  He told the audience, “Changes in food supply are coming.  Consumers have a lot of knowledge, and they want good food.  People realize they’ve been cheated when they finally taste an heirloom tomato.”


Panel Discussion

Richard Chisholm
Richard Chisholm Cinematography

300 Oakdale Road
Baltimore, MD   21210

Edward Docalovich
Bethlehem Area School District

114 W. Morton Street
Bethlehem, PA  18105

Jeff Frank
Liberty Gardens

4390 Liberty Road
Coopersburg, PA  18036

Robert Irving

9801 Washingtonian Blvd
Gaithersburg, MD 20878
301. 987.4415

School Contacts

Lori Seier
Northwestern School District
6493 Route 309
New Tripoli, PA  18066

Ann Johnson
East Penn School District

800 Pine St.
Emmaus, PA  18049

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