In 1946, President Truman signed the National School Lunch Act, a reaction to the hundreds of thousands of recruits the army rejected during World War II because of the damage childhood malnutrition had inflicted on their bodies. The law set the first federal school nutrition standards. 

Six decades later, President Obama faced a different childhood nutrition dilemma: record obesity rates. His administration’s solution, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, was designed to get kids to eat healthier. But the food it mandated was bland, and kids didn’t want to eat it. School-meal participation plummeted. 

Today, nearly all public schools meet the Obama-era guidelines, but the childhood obesity epidemic has only worsened. 

Across the Triangle, school districts are taking different approaches to lure students back to school-meal programs. Part of the goal is to get more kids who are eligible for free and reduced lunch programs to participate. That allows school districts to recoup more money from the federal government, which can go toward nutrition services. But it also helps those children eat better. 

Many lower-income kids prefer to go hungry or eat junk food than participate in free or reduced lunch because of the stigma attached to it, says Steve Mangano, co-founder of the North Carolina Partnership for Child Nutrition. To overcome that stigma, schools need more children buying their lunches, as well—a “cultural change,” he calls it, that persuades teachers and students to each school meals. 

Throughout September, the NCPN’s Support School Meals initiative aims to raise $300,000 to increase Wake County’s school-meal-participation rates, which Mangano says are currently below 50 percent. More than forty of the area’s top chefs—including Ashley Christensen, Scott Crawford, and Cheetie Kumar—and other local businesses are participating, asking patrons to donate five bucks toward the effort when they pay their tab.

Both Wake and Durham schools have partnered with Food Insight Group, a local organization that collaborates with scientists, economists, and others to build equitable and sustainable food systems. Working with the NCPCN, FIG is conducting two studies with the goal of enhancing school dining in Wake County. The first will investigate best practices around the country. The second will examine Wake’s nutrition programs and recommend improvements.

Along with Durham Public Schools, FIG is also helping spearhead the 2019 Durham Bowls Food Fest, a healthy-food competition that will take place at The Scrap Exchange on October 12.

Durham Bowls consists of eleven two-person teams comprising a DPS nutrition professional and a Bull City chef who create nutritious and locally sourced meal bowls. Each team must operate within the same conditions—and price constraints—as DPS school cafeterias. The teams form in April and utilize the flavors of the spring and summer to design their creations. The bowls are judged at the October fest, and the winner is featured in DPS lunchrooms through May.

It’s challenging to cater to the taste buds of DPS’s diverse student population, says Charmaine White, cafeteria manager for Durham’s School of Creative Studies, though the classic childhood trifecta—pizza, macaroni and cheese, and chicken nuggets—is usually a safe bet. 

But James Keaton, director of child nutrition at DPS, says he’s been surprised by students’ growing interest in the Durham Bowls competition.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools has privatized its nutrition program with Chartwells, a food service company that gives its cafeterias full creative control over their menus. Some have stations where students can customize their own dishes, such as build-your-own nachos or stir-fries. CCHCS elementary schools will periodically host a farmers market, in which students can select produce, learn about it, and then work with chefs to prepare it. 

In 2018, Carrboro High instituted a program called Student Choice, in which students voted on their favorite sandwich after a weeklong tasting of options. The winner, Nashville hot chicken, and second choice, Teriyaki-pineapple chicken, are currently on rotation in the school’s lunchroom and district cafeterias.

Chartwells dining director Liz Cartano says that making lunches more enjoyable for students is as much about nutrition education as the meal itself—and depends on engagement with the community and training for cafeteria staff members. 

“You can serve the best food to students,” she says, “but if it’s served by someone that’s mean and doesn’t take pride in it and is not invested, then it impacts the program.”

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