What's the key to better school food?

What's the key to better school food?
Students at Ann M Jeans Elementary School in Willowbrook were eager to talk about the improved school food served in their cafeteria. WBEZ/Monica Eng
What's the key to better school food?
Students at Ann M Jeans Elementary School in Willowbrook were eager to talk about the improved school food served in their cafeteria. WBEZ/Monica Eng

What's the key to better school food?

In the last decade, school districts around the nation have tried different formulas to reform student lunches. Some think the answer lies in salad bars. Others have tried all organic programs. Still others have put their bets on school gardens.

But one little known program out of Minnesota starts by simply removing seven unwanted ingredients.

“We have no artificial colors, no artificial sweeteners, no artificial preservatives, no trans fats or hydrogenated oils, no antibiotics or hormones in meats and no bleached flour,” Jason Thunstrom said as he stood in the Jeans Elementary School lunchroom in West Suburban Willowbrook.

Thunstrom is President of the Life Time Fitness Foundation, which has provided 90 schools in four states with money to buy foods without the seven ingredients. The lunches end up looking a lot like what you’d see in any other low income schools, just sourced from manufacturers who don’t use artificial colors, sweeteners or preservatives or trans fats and meat raised with antibiotics. 

One of those food manufacturers is Bill Kurtis. Yes, the legendary anchorman. He has been selling grass-fed beef under his Tallgrass brand for years, but just recently got into the hot dog game. He was also at Jeans Elementary on a recent afternoon watching the debut of his hot dogs in a school cafeteria.

“We put grassfed beef in and we took out nitrates ... and preservatives that you’ll find in regular hot dogs," Kurtis said. ”And it’s why your mother is a little afraid for you to have a regular diet of hot dogs."

Kurtis was speaking to a room of low-income third graders, who seemed unfamiliar with his work as a newscaster but highly appreciative of hot dog-making skills.   

“They taste really good,” third-grader Renaya said.

Some of her classmates even appreciated the meal on its nutritional merits.

“It was really good because I put ketchup on the hot dog and a bun is [whole] grain,” third-grader Malcolm said.

Thunstrom says one of the students eating this hot dog, corn, carrot, apple and milk lunch was eating the millionth meal served in the Life Time funded program. 

The whole idea was spawned, he says, by concern the company’s CEO had over his own child entering school. When he heard about what was served in most American lunchrooms, he initially considered buying up the lunch program. 

“But then reality set in, and he realized it would be an expensive proposition,” Thunstrom remembered.    

So instead of buying the whole program, Life Time decided to do an experiment—to see what it would take to get those seven ingredients out of school food.

“We started with one school in Minnesota just as a test to see if we could go in and look at their lunch and remove those seven items what might that cost,” he said. “We were surprised to find it was about 35 cents [per student meal] on average.”

This first phase of the program involves serving better versions of lunchrooms standards like hamburgers, hot dogs, chicken nuggets and pizza. But Thunstrom says the longer term goal is to upgrade kitchens and support more cooking from scratch. 

To this end, Life Time presented the school with a $10,000 check to upgrade its kitchen for more scratch cooking.

Still, the endgame isn’t to keep writing unlimited checks. Thunstrom says that the ultimate goal is to get other funders, administrators, and eventually, the federal government to recognize the value of such a program and make it the norm. 

“We’d like this model to become known to government officials and school administrators,” Thunstrom said. “You know, to say ‘it’s America, enough’s enough.’ We think it’s worth investing in our kids an incremental 35 cents to at least get them on a healthy way of life journey at school. Then can we also [create] lesson planning and take-home material to help that bleed over into the home.”

And he doesn’t just mean the homes of corporate CEOs.

Monica Eng is a WBEZ producer and co-host of the Chewing The Fat podcast. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at meng@wbez.org