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Can School Food in Fairfax County Really Change?

More than 150 parents, teachers, students and health professionals joined expert panelists and culinary students at Real Food For Kids’ Feeding Academic Success event to learn why it can and must.

Not only can schools transition from serving highly processed foods to menus of freshly prepared whole foods, but the likelihood of participation in the school lunch program increasing as a result of those changes is high. But it takes commitment – on the part of the county, the teachers and school administrators and parents to drive that change and stay with it.

Those were the high points of keynote speaker Chef Ann Cooper, a model and advocate for better school food, at Feeding Academic Success, held last week at Marshall High School in Falls Church. The event, the second for Fairfax County-based parent advocacy group Real Food For Kids, brought together change agents from other school districts, policy experts and medical professionals to discuss how change to our school food system is not only possible, but why, in consideration of the health crisis that continues to grow, it is necessary.

The panel discussion was complimented by a culinary challenge among four of the seven Fairfax County high school culinary academies. Teams of students from Falls Church, Marshall, Mount Vernon and Chantilly high schools were tasked with creating a salad bar that was not only appetizing and appealing, but also met USDA guidelines for reimbursement under the National School Lunch Program. Chef Cooper judged, along with co-panelists, Katherine Bishop, nutrition policy associate with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, restaurateur Nora Poullion, pioneer and champion of organic, environmentally conscious cuisine, Dr. Natalie Sikka, obesity specialist in pediatric gastroenterology with INOVA Fairfax Children’s Hospital, and Ed Kwitowski, chef and director of school food services for D.C. Central Kitchen which prepares fresh cooked meals for D.C. Public Schools under a pilot program.

Marshall High School, which is currently undergoing an extensive build-out and renovation, has been selected as the site of a pilot program that will engage students in developing meals that could be part of a future menu of scratch-cooked foods served in Fairfax County as well as a potential distribution center.

“I was thrilled to attend this wonderful event, which emphasized the importance of fresh, healthy foods and the handiwork of FCPS Culinary Arts Academy students,” said school board member Patty Reed (Providence), in whose district Marshall sits, adding that she is looking forward to watching the healthy foods pilot program unfold at Marshall. Reed was joined by fellow school board Ilryong Moon (Chairman), Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill), Jane Strauss (Dranesville), Sandy Evans (Mason), Dan Storck (Mount Vernon), and Ryan McElveen (At-Large).

The Five-Star Award was won by the team from Chantilly High School including Nikki Caballero, Valerie Claunch and Kyung Lee, all of whom plan to become professional chefs. A second Taster’s Choice Award, which was judged by school board members and other VIPs, state representatives Kaye Kory, Barbara Comstock and Mark Keam, as well as the Director of Safe and Healthy Students for the Department of Education, David Esquith, was presented to Marshall High School students Jack Donahue, Noah Follin, Justin Kim and David Mock.

“I am always impressed by the large crowd, including both local and federal officials, that come out to celebrate Food Day in Fairfax County,” said McElveen, a Marshall alum. “This year, it was especially exciting to see students engage in a culinary challenge and present innovative ideas for improving salad bars in our schools. As this event proved, we can always learn great things from our students when we make the effort to engage them.”

The culinary students who participated illustrated clearly that high school students are well aware of the importance of good nutrition. The team captain from Marshall, speaking for his peers, humorously pointed out that it was a “no-brainer” to pick a fresh, appetizing salad over a frozen pizza with cardboard crust and plastic cheese.

Department of Education’s David Esquith echoed those sentiments, saying that “good nutrition and academic success go hand-in-hand. Real Food For Kids’ second annual Food Day celebration demonstrates what can happen when students plan their school lunch menu.”

Real Food For Kids President JoAnne Hammermaster opened the panel discussion by stressing why this issue must generate more dialogue. “We hear a lot these days about obesity, diabetes, and other health issues, and why we need to do something about it. The truth is: the problem is real. What used to be discussed as affecting adults is now having a major impact on our kids. It is now affecting their livelihood and their future. That is why we have asked our panel of experts to give you some insight into why this initiative is so important for our kids and their success at school.”

Following Chef Cooper’s keynote, Natalie Sikka detailed the rising rates of chronic disease and obesity she sees in her practice which could be managed and avoided through better food options. Katherine Bishop from CSPI outlined how the new Health Hunger Free Kids Act legislation, which went into effect this fall, is playing out in school districts, requiring larger quantities of fruits and vegetables. Ed Kwitowski addressed the challenges of building a fresh-cooked meals program but the rewards of creating meals that students embrace and that genuinely nourish them for academic success. And Nora Poullion remarked that no amount of money can buy your health back, which is why you must protect it.

The evening presented, with crystal clarity, that students and parents are eager for change to school food in Fairfax County and that the changes being advocated by Real Food For Kids are attainable and affordable. RFFK is currently awaiting the award of an independent assessment of Food and Nutrition Services that will identify how the county can move toward a program that more proactively meets the health and academic needs of our schoolchildren. An award is expected by the end of this year.

The evening concluded with a robust Q&A session with panelists, members of RFFK and the school board. A 6th grader and Student Council President said that 95% of the students at her school wanted to change school food and she asked how she could make this happen. Pat Hynes answered, “Real Food For Kids is probably the answer. Take a page out of [their] playbook on how to successfully advocate for change. Join forces with them.” She also encouraged event attendees to contact their school board members directly about this issue.

Real Food For Kids is planning a series of programs in the coming year where students, parents, teachers, school administrators, health professionals and community leaders can become more involved in advancing this movement, including a push for more salad bars. Fairfax County currently has only ten in 196 of its schools.

Mary Porter is a nutrition educator, counselor and cook living in the Fort Hunt area. You can email her at mary@betterplate.com

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