• St. Louis Public Schools earns A for its lunch program

    St. Louis Post-Dispatch


    ST. LOUIS  •  How do you get school kids to pick a black bean taco over cheese pizza and fries?

    St. Louis Public Schools might have the answer.

    Offer the healthy food, but also educate the students about why the healthy choice is the better choice. Bring in visiting chefs and have gardens outside 22 schools to grow vegetables on school property.

    Those are some of the St. Louis Public Schools' methods that have impressed a Washington-based nutrition advocacy group, which this month gave the district's lunch program an "A."

    The district earned a score of 95 out of 100. That's a marked improvement from its grade of F in 2007 from the same nonprofit group, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

    The Physicians Committee's School Lunch Report Card says St. Louis Public Schools deserves a mention for "most improved." Since its last grade in 2007, the district has "made impressive strides in offering its more than 25,000 students healthful lunches."

    Sure, the menu still has cheese pizza on Fridays, but it's on whole grain crust. The chicken is oven-baked. The only fries are baked sweet potato fries. Anything breaded is a whole-grain crust that is baked. And the corn dog nuggets are turkey, according to the lunch menu in September for St. Louis schools.

    The district offers vegetarian options every day and vegan options three days a week. Those include a black bean taco, a roasted veggie and cheese wrap and a hummus and veggie pita. Oven-steamed butternut squash, fresh cucumber "coins," and fresh green apple salsa are on the elementary school menus, too.

    From 2008 to 2010, the district eliminated all fried foods and trans fats and increased fruits and vegetables by 65 percent, the district says. The district also says it is ahead of schedule to meet new USDA nutritional guidelines.

    The committee noted that the St. Louis Public Schools, with its food-service provider Chartwells, has a "flexitarian" campaign that promotes eating plant-based meals once or twice a week.

    "Some schools might consider cheese pizza as a plant-based option, but we're looking for a higher bar and a little more creativity," said Susan Levin, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition education for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. 

    St. Louis' menu variety with the black bean taco "is a little unusual, I'm afraid to say,"Levin said. "It's not a peanut butter and jelly sandwich being offered every day as the vegetarian or the healthier option.

    "When we see things like black beans taco on an elementary school menu, it's pretty impressive," she added. "To get a child at that age to eat a black bean taco, there has to be educational components in place. And that's what St. Louis is doing."

    To put together its 2012 School Lunch Report Card, the Physicians Committee sent surveys to 100 districts across the country. It meant to include some of the country's larger districts, but to also get a good sampling of districts from different geographic areas. Twenty-two districts filled out the surveys and were included in the evaluation. The committee's nutrition team of dietitians and other nutrition experts evaluated the surveys.

    What impressed the evaluators most about St. Louis is that the district not only offered healthy choices but also provided the education to teach kids about picking those healthier foods, Levin said.

    The St. Louis Public Schools has a farm-to-school program and last year served 60,000 pounds of locally grown produce, such as sweet potatoes and kale, according to the survey filled out by Althea Albert-Santiago, director of food services for the city schools.

    Albert-Santiago said, "We see that the kids are picking those fruits and vegetables."

    Not everyone is on board just yet, though. "We are finding out that some students are still not used to them, so it's going to take education," Albert-Santiago said. "Over time, students are getting used to the healthier options."

    At 25 of the more than 40 elementary schools in the district, the kitchens have been converted so lunches are prepared fresh on-site rather than having pre-packaged meals. 

    Under the district's Chefs 2 Schools program, nearly 20 chefs in two years have visited the schools to teach kids about healthy food choices. They bring kids into the kitchen to demonstrate how to make the lunches, such as chicken and rice.

    The district has partnered with Gateway Greening to have 22 school gardens. Students pick and clean carrots and snack on them at school, for example.

    A 7-year-old child presented with the choice of a black bean taco versus pizza and fries is probably more likely to take the pizza, Levin said, "unless you have the educational component in place."

    St. Louis' educational component — with the visiting chefs and school gardens — makes the difference, she said.

    But are the kids really picking the healthier choices? Levin said the evaluators will be able to tell soon enough.

    "School cafeterias are a business. If they can't sell it and it's wasted, they won't offer it next year," Levin said. "So it will be interesting to see what their menu looks like next year. That would be a pretty good indication that the kids are picking that."

    Levin said she can't recall specifically what caused St. Louis to earn an F in 2007, the last time it sent in its self-grading survey. But she's willing to guess it had a lot of do with having menus with high-fat, high-cholesterol dairy products and processed meats, such as hot dogs and pepperoni.

    Only one district, Pinellas County Schools in Florida, got a score of 100. So what would it take to earn St. Louis a perfect score, too?

    "They could have had a healthful (main dish) plant-based option every day of the week," Levin said. "We were looking for completely cholesterol-free, not with cheese or other high fat components. They said they had it three days a week."

    But Levin said she hates to focus on the 5 points.

    "A 95 is a solid A," she said. "They are doing a terrific job. It's the educational component that is really going to make a difference. It's one thing to offer something healthy on the menu. It's another to make sure they're eating that."

    The district works with a produce broker and several farms within a 150-mile radius to bring in food such as zucchini, eggplant, kale and peaches. The district works with a grant through St. Louis University to buy items such as applesauce and marinara sauce that were "minimally processed" locally.