Forward-thinking programs get kids to eat better

(BPT) - They say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But for millions of low-income children across the country, the low-cost or free lunch they get at school is the most nutritious, most filling meal they will eat.

In 2016, over 30 million kids across the U.S. received low-cost or free lunches at their school. With such a wide-ranging impact, school meal programs play a huge role in the well-being of our nation’s young people.

According to Wilder Research, nearly one in six children in the state of Minnesota live in food-insecure households. Many of these kids rely on school lunch to get the nutrients they need. To make sure these needs are met, one school district in the state has been blending nutrition with trends in popular culture to create a dynamic program that is getting kids excited about healthy food while also creating better eating habits.

Jr. Iron Chef

Question: In an urban school district, how can the idea behind a popular television show be used to raise awareness of healthy meal options?

In essence, this is what happened when Miguel Lopez, a seventh-grader at Anwatin Middle School, along with seven other teams and 16 other students, competed alongside eight professional chefs in one of Minneapolis Public Schools’ “Jr. Iron Chef” competitions.

Modeled after the popular television show, where teams compete to create the most appetizing dish, this three-year-old program was designed in cooperation with Cargill to teach students about good nutrition and meal preparation. Students from across the district were invited to compete — just as popular celebrity chefs on TV do — in live cooking competitions.

“This night was not so much about the competition, but about what these students have learned about how to prepare good meals on their own,” said Minneapolis Public Schools’ Director of Culinary and Wellness Services, Bertrand Weber. “We wanted to apply the Iron Chef concept to help improve our students’ health and well-being. Yes, it was a cool night, but the hope is that they will go home and do this for themselves and their families versus choosing less healthy meal options.”

While the Jr. Iron Chef competition was getting students all over the district revved up, Cargill and Minneapolis Public Schools were weaving another popular culinary trend into the district’s nutrition and wellness programs: food trucks.

Nutrition on wheels

Parked outside the venue where Jr. Iron Chef was held was a shiny, new food truck purchased with a recent $75,000 grant from Cargill to Minneapolis Public Schools. This is the school district’s second food truck. The first one hit the road in 2013 and became so popular that it quickly exceeded capacity.

The trucks are staffed by the school district’s nutrition and culinary staff, to bring nutritious meals to students, especially when school is not in session.

The trucks also appear at district-run wellness seminars and cooking demonstrations.

“The value of these food trucks has been recognized by Minneapolis Public Schools and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),” said Cargill Vice President of Corporate Responsibility Michelle Grogg. “It’s been a successful strategy that community and state partners have found to improve their capacity to reach food-insecure children when school is in and out of session.”

In the summer of 2017, Minneapolis Public Schools served approximately 400,000 free meals and snacks to Minneapolis youth. This coming summer, Minneapolis Public Schools’ two food trucks will operate at a total of eight summer feeding sites in conjunction with community youth and physical activity programming.

A new example

As school lunch plays such an important role for millions of urban, low-income students, the importance of steering these kids toward eating more nutritious, wholesome meals cannot be overstated. Though it can be hard to get kids excited about fruits and vegetables, the creative and forward-thinking programs put on by the Minneapolis Public Schools point in a fun, and promising, direction.

“It’s great to see two popular trends in food being applied to the nutritional needs of our students,” says Grogg. “We hope it doesn’t stop here and we hope other communities around Minnesota and the U.S. learn from our successes.”

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