Decades ago, when school nutrition programs were in their infancy, the challenge was to feed the hungry children of the Great Depression using the surplus of commodity foods that were plunging American farmers into bankruptcy. Feeding scores of undernourished children became a matter of national security. 

Today, the challenge is different. School nutrition programs have ceased to be a source of needed calories for those lacking in food security and have instead become a dumping ground for foods we have too much of – and much of which is not particularly healthy (source: USDA Food and Nutrition Service).  America’s obesity problem poses particular threats to children, perhaps most of all to low-income children for whom healthy food options are few. The future leaders and workers of the nation are now, in many cases, too fat to be fully productive.  Just as food scarcity created a threat during the Great Depression, the prevalence of this new epidemic demands action before obesity further erodes American competitiveness and our national security. 

But what does “action” look like? With budgetary constraints and strict dietary guidelines, how can schools prepare and present healthy food kids will willingly consume? What about the systemic forces that drive those consumption patterns? What about the skill sets of those charged with feeding our children? 

The answers to those questions might look a lot like a unique collaboration between LiveWell Colorado and volunteer chef mentors from Johnson and Wales University.  These mentors dedicated time and expertise to instructing students at Manual High School, Bruce Randolph School, KIPP Denver Collegiate High School and Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in the preparation of healthy and delicious meals. Students acquired knowledge of food preparation and food safety, as well as established a basic culinary foundation. They then used those skills to prepare lunches meeting USDA standards for school nutrition and costing less than $1 per student per day. Adding to their challenge, these students were required to use at least one ingredient produced locally. 

I was honored to have a seat at the annual LiveWell@School Fundraising Luncheon and to enjoy the winning meal — a chicken wrap, coleslaw with lite vinaigrette and a jalapeno peach crumble.  More importantly, however, I was struck by the scope of what this program has accomplished. One of the young participants spoke of how the program has changed the way her family eats at home and how she has instructed her siblings to read and interpret nutrition information and food labels. This same young woman has just received a scholarship to attend Johnson and Wales, so as to continue her culinary education after high school.  

The collaboration has taken expert chefs and turned their love of food into a powerful tool in the fight against obesity, while providing transferrable cooking skills to students and school staff alike. It indirectly examines the systemic forces that sometimes thwart efforts to create lasting change: By providing food education to adults in the school setting and to young students, this knowledge is then taken into their respective homes. For the first time, all of the stakeholders have a place at the lunch table. The kids themselves are making determinations about food quality, taste, presentation and preference. They also are translating the nutrition information in the context of USDA guidelines and the food costs so as not to exceed budgetary targets. Adults once charged with merely re-heating processed foods are taking that same measure of ownership and pride and acquiring job skills that will serve them well into the future. 

As wonderful as it was to enjoy the winning meal, the highlight of the afternoon was hearing the students give voice to their experiences, describing the ways in which the program has shaped their confidence, their understanding of nutrition and “good food,” and the opportunities created after empowering youth to invest in their schools and in themselves.