Quinoa burgers. Pasta Alfredo. Eggplant Parmesan sandwiches. Chicken piccata. They sound like entrees at a restaurant—but they're actually straight off a school cafeteria menu.
Every day, students in the the Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) in Colorado eat food that's freshly made, organic, and locally sourced when possible, and free of high-fructose corn syrup, trans fats, and chemical dyes or additives. There are no highly processed foods like chicken nuggets on the menu. There's no chocolate milk. The district still serves kid-favorites like pizza and nachos—but the ingredients are all high-quality, and it's all made from scratch.
Students also learn where food comes from, what fresh food tastes like, and even how to cook. Each month, the district features a fruit or vegetable and does tastings in the cafeteria (this month it was purple potatoes!). On Rainbow Days, all kids are invited to get a free salad—and if they pick at least four colors of vegetables in their salad, they get a sticker. The schools also host visits from farmers, organize field trips to local farms, and hold "Iron Chef" cooking competitions for the students.
And yes, students actually eat and enjoy the healthier school food. "Most people think kids won't eat real food, but that's so far from the truth," says chef Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services at BVSD and a well-known advocate for better food for all children. Cooper says that before they make changes to the menu or add new items, she and her staff host tastings in the cafeteria and ask students for their feedback. "It's about collaboration with the kids," she says.
The United States Healthful Food Council recently honored the district with the first "REAL" certification award (Responsible Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership) given to a public school district. The award recognizes foodservice operators who have shown a commitment to health and sustainability.
If this kind of cafeteria food feels like an impossible dream at your child's school, Cooper says to think again. "Parents have a tremendous amount of power," she says. Her advice: First, go eat lunch with your child in the cafeteria. Then find out if your school has a wellness policy and see what it says about food and nutrition. Talk to the district's food service director and ask what the barriers are to making changes (and how you can help). If all else fails, you can gather together other like-minded parents and go to the school board with your concerns.
In 2009, Cooper founded the nonprofit Chef Ann Foundation, which focuses on school food solutions. The foundation's project The Lunch Box has free tools, recipes, and resources that can help schools improve their food programs and transition to whole, healthy meals made from scratch. "It's absolutely possible in every school district to serve better food," she says.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook Twitter Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.