While Feds Loosen School Nutrition Standards, My Child’s School Won’t Back Down

While my husband dug in the freezer on a recent Monday morning, my second-grader informed me of the day’s breakfast menu: “I’m having a waffle and chocolate pudding.” “Have some school breakfast, too,” I suggested over my shoulder as I left for work. At Namaste Charter School, students enjoy a healthy, low-fat, whole-grain breakfast and lunch every day. An apple, orange or banana is part of the breakfast package. On the chocolate pudding mornings, knowing that brings me great comfort. Namaste’s healthy meals bring an extra dollop of comfort now that the USDA has announced it will  roll back controversial school lunch nutrition standards championed by former First Lady Michelle Obama. The new rules allow school food service providers to up the amount of processed grains like white flour in their menus. They hold off on a planned reduction in salt. They also allow for the return of flavored milk with 1 percent fat. Doesn’t sound too bad, right? Who doesn’t like chocolate milk? But for those of us who remember the days when  ketchup was a vegetable, a rollback of nutrition standards sounds suspiciously like an opening for Big Food to make money off the backs of school children, many of whom rely on schools for two or even three meals a day. Dairy producers pushed hard for the change, notes  Politico. Mrs. Obama went on a tear over the changes, asking, “What are we going back to? You know, this is where you really have to look at motives.” Meanwhile, new research shows that when California public schools made the effort to hire high-quality food service providers, student achievement rose slightly. “Providing healthier school lunches is potentially a very cost-effective way for a school to improve student learning,” researchers note. Over time, Namaste students have consistently outperformed students from comparable schools in reading, math and science. Though there could be multiple reasons why, school staff can see the difference when kids eat well.

A School Where Real Food Tastes Really Good

At Namaste, healthy food has been a core value since day one. In fact, at the school’s original location, a top priority was  building a kitchen. Since then, Namaste has moved into a larger space and built an addition with an up-to-date kitchen. Every year, Namaste holds a cook-off where students share their favorite healthy recipes. Winners get to work with professional chefs and serve their creations at our school’s annual fundraiser, Sabor de Namaste. In 2014, Namaste became the second school in the Midwest to win the USDA’s  Gold Award of Distinction for meeting those healthy meal standards. And that’s not going to change. As our founder, Allison Slade,  told the USDA, “When you teach kids why eating fresh fruits and vegetables, beans and whole grains is the best thing for their bodies, they really buy in.” Not only does Namaste offer real food that tastes really good for lunch, they have a healthy food policy that tells you what you can send in for a packed lunch. To me, this makes it all the easier to just leave the cooking to them—a boon to a busy working mom. No need to buy Lunchables, and I know my kiddo can have options like salad, green beans or sweet potato French fries with her meatballs or turkey taco. Every five years, state law requires our school to re-open bidding for its food service contract. At a recent board meeting, the chair suggested we invite bids from some of the premier organic school lunch providers in Chicago. You know, the ones bringing the food to the pricey daycares and private schools in town. We all know we might not be able to afford what they offer, but just knowing what they can do could help us push a less-expensive contractor to think more creatively and deliver even tastier, healthier food to our kids. In a time when the USDA is loosening nutrition standards, I’m glad my child attends a charter school that won’t back down from its commitment to healthy eating.  
Maureen Kelleher
Maureen Kelleher is Editorial Partner at Ed Post. She is a veteran education reporter, a former high school English teacher, and also the proud mom of an elementary student in Chicago Public Schools. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to ...

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