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Mother-Daughter Team Revamps School Cafeteria Offerings

By Lindsey Getz

In the wake of news stories about kids “taking and tossing” their school lunches now that cafeterias are meeting stricter nutritional standards established by the government, a story of hope comes from a private school in New York City.

Like many schools, this private K-12 school was serving foods full of high-fructose corn syrup, hormones, antibiotics, preservatives, and additives. Allison Carmen and her daughter Morgan set forth to make some significant changes and are proud that the school now serves organic, local meat, vegetables, and fruit. But it wasn’t an easy journey.

“When Morgan first enrolled in the school nine years ago, we were a bit shocked by the school menu,” Carmen recalls. “Fast food would have been a step up. The beef sat in a box in a closet; the soup was packed with MSG; and everything was highly processed and full of preservatives. I know it’s possible to serve fresh food for a low price, but it takes a little bit of effort. So we wanted to show the school what changes could be made.”

However, like many other schools around the country, the administration was at first highly resistant to change. Carmen says it wasn’t that they didn’t care about the children’s health—they truly didn’t see the connection between good food and healthy kids. Carmen knew her best weapon was education. Carmen and her daughter, who was only in kindergarten at the time, started educating parents.

“Morgan and I would give tours of Whole Foods and get families more interested in how they could eat fresh, healthier foods,” Carmen says. “She also refused to eat the lunch so I’d pack her something I made. That was fully her decision, but the school told me that Morgan wasn’t adjusting because she wouldn’t eat. We decided to use that as a platform to explain our position.”

That’s when the mother-daughter team decided to do some research. They put together a thorough food presentation that included information on exactly what’s in meat and dairy and why hormones and antibiotics are dangerous. “We talked about how high-fructose corn syrup affects the body,” Carmen explains. “All of this research came from doctors and dietitians. We wanted to include substantial information so it wasn’t just our opinion. We also called other schools around the country and found out how they were making healthful changes. Many of the parents started getting involved and sending us their own information, and when the school began to see how many parents were concerned, they finally agreed to meet with us.”

It was a long process, but the school eventually saw the need for change and discovered Flik, an independent school dining program committed to getting the harmful ingredients out of school foods. “The school went pretty far with it—we now have organic beef, free-range chicken, organic eggs, and even an organic yogurt machine,” Carmen says. “You won’t find canned foods in the cafeteria. It’s all about fresh food now.”

Morgan says her two favorite foods are the whole wheat pesto pasta with organic cheese and an organic mozzarella on rye panini from the make-your-own-sandwich line. She says the other kids are embracing the change as well. “My friends and I were really excited when they changed the food because we tried to help our parents make the change,” Morgan remembers. “There were some kids that complained because they missed their processed American cheese slices, but over the years they’ve gotten used to fresh cheese. There are always going to be people that complain when there’s change, but I think it’s just fear.”

Carmen and her daughter’s latest project has been getting the school’s families connected with a community-supported agriculture (CSA) setup they helped establish. Sixty families have signed up to buy shares in the local CSA program, using the school as a drop-off point. “The administration said no at first, but we explained it was a wonderful opportunity to teach the kids about fresh and local food and how important it is to support our farmers,” Carmen says. “We got permission and just started it this fall, aligning with an upstate farmer who’s provided us with wonderful produce. It’s been so exciting to hear how much the kids have embraced it.”

And these days it’s been the school that has placed a stronger focus on nutrition education. When a new food is being introduced in the cafeteria, the chef will speak to the kids and provide samples. Dietitians also speak to the kids through an internship program with a local college.

While Carmen was the parental face behind these changes, she insists Morgan was always an advocate on her own as well. In fact, Carmen says it was her daughter’s persistence and passion that helped keep her going, too. And now that Morgan is older, she’s doing even more work on her own, such as helping to run the CSA and distributing produce to members.

“Now I can also advocate for myself regarding school food,” Morgan says. “Last year the administration took away the sandwich line. I got all the middle school kids to sign a petition to bring back the line, and I had many meetings with the administration. By the end of the year, the sandwich line was back.”

— Lindsey Getz is a freelance writer in Royersford, Pennsylvania.