Friendly chatter is the norm at Burchfield Elementary’s cafeteria. The people who work in the cafeteria like to talk to the kids and the kids like to talk to the people who work in the cafeteria. That’s how it is at all three schools in the city of Colusa’s school district. Lunch is positive – and healthy.
The lunch room has been set up in a way that nudges kids to choose healthy foods. There are eye-catching displays to make food items look more attractive and healthy grab-and-go foods have been put at the front of the line so kids see those first. The schools’ salad bars are filled with many colors and textures. When you walk down the line you see lots of choices like spinach salad with strawberries, pico de gallo and broccoli salad with bacon.
“We use the real bacon bits, we don’t use the imitation bits, and it has a broccoli and a cauliflower, and it looks like garlic and a little bit of pepper,” says Leasa Hill, the school district’s food service director. “Then next to it you just have corn. The kids here love the corn. Cucumbers – everyday those fresh cucumbers go. We can put three or four of those bins out and they’ll all go. And then you have a lettuce so you can make a salad of your choice.”
Hill is in charge of all things cafeteria at Colusa, including what goes on the menu. But that part of her job has become a bit of a challenge lately. Not only does Hill want her staff’s food to appeal to the kids’ palates so they’ll buy lunch at school – she also has to make sure the food she serves complies with the government’s new nutrition standards. Limits have been placed on calories, fats, protein and sodium in school meals. Refined grains have been replaced with whole. And now cafeterias also need to make sure kids eating school meals also have a fruit and vegetable on their tray.
The new mandates are a challenge. But with a lot of work and creativity – like nudging kids’ choices, adding more locally grown produce to the menu and sneaking fruits and veggies into meals kids already love – Hill’s been able to create an environment where kids are actually eating the healthier school meals.
What’s ironic is that Hill never thought it was possible, at least not initially. When the new standards were first announced, back in 2012, Hill said she was a complete naysayer. She didn’t think the kids would bite either.
“I honestly believed it was not going to work,” she said. “I honestly believed they wouldn’t care where the fruits and vegetables came from, they were not going to select them, they were going to be so mad that you weren’t letting them have a candy bar and a soda anymore that they were going to quit buying everything from you and everybody was going to go out and do their own thing.”
But instead she said, she was wrong.
“I actually thought I was going to lose my job because the kids were going to quit eating,” Hill said. “And that didn’t happen.”
What did happen is the kids started eating the healthier food. It took a lot of time and a lot of incremental changes, but eventually when the kids walked by Hill it was her staff’s healthy offerings she saw on their trays.
And that changed her mind. Even now Hill says looking at the trays keeps her moving forward.
She said one day a principal pulled her aside during lunch to point out a kid who he said ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch every day. But not that day. That day he’d chosen something more nutritious.
“He chose are Chinese Chicken Salad,” she said. “So I mean, what better pay off then that?”