Forget greasy chicken fingers and day-old pizza — public school lunches in Providence are now nationally recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for their healthier menu options.
Sixteen Providence elementary schools were awarded bronze certification earlier this month in the USDA’s Healthier U.S. Schools Challenge.
These schools join 77 others in Rhode Island that have received awards — 76 bronze and one silver — from the USDA.
Only 5 percent of U.S. schools had won similar awards as of Feb. 13, said Jane Francis, spokesperson for the Northeast Region Food and Nutrition Services of the USDA. Within New England, 46 Massachusetts schools and 105 Connecticut schools have also won awards. To receive certification, a school must demonstrate that it meets the criteria in each of the challenge’s “three pillars” — school meal nutrition, nutrition education and physical activity, Francis said.
The competition awards four levels of certification — bronze, silver, gold and gold with distinction, with each incorporating increasingly rigorous requirements. For a school to receive a bronze award, its lunch program must include a different sort of fruit and vegetable each day of the week, with an emphasis on dark green and orange vegetables, fresh fruit, beans and legumes. The schools must also serve at least one portion of whole grain food three days per week and exclusively 1 percent and fat free milk products, as well as institute calorie, sodium and fat limits in lunches set by the government.
In addition, schools must provide both structured and unstructured time for physical activity. This translates into a period for recess plus an average of 45 minutes per week of physical education for elementary school students, according to the USDA’s guidelines. The challenge also mandates that students receive nutrition education in at least half of the school’s grade levels.
Nutritious school lunches and health education are important because schools are well-positioned to instill healthy habits in their young students, Francis said. Initiatives are more likely to make a difference, especially at the elementary school level, if they are “holistic” and incorporated into several aspects of the students’ days, she said.
“A lot of schools that are successful at this involve the students in the change,” she said. Rhode Island schools have involved students in the redevelopment of their lunch programs by engaging them in trips to local farms, taste tests and demonstrations, she said, adding that some schools also have community gardens.
Sodexo, the food service provider for Providence Public Schools, owns 15 acres on Pezzo farm in Johnston, R.I., which grows and harvests produce exclusively for the company’s use, said Mark Jeffrey, district manager for Providence Public Schools at Sodexo. In the future, Sodexo will look to increase capacity at this farm and expand the program to include other farms, he added.
Since the initiative began, “we have really increased the students’ consumption of local fruits and vegetables dramatically in the school district,” he said.
Jeffrey said “local purchasing for produce in (the) industry is within a 100-mile radius,” but Sodexo Rhode Island interprets that idea differently. The company defines local produce as that “grown and harvested in the state of Rhode Island only.” In addition to the health and convenience of purchasing and growing locally, the “local purchasing” initiative is beneficial to Rhode Island because it stimulates the state’s economy, he added.
Pawtucket schools, which received bronze awards in 2010, locally source milk products and honey, Francis said. The schools held a demonstration where a local honey farmer brought a portable hive “so the kids could see the honey bees in action,” she said.
Schools in Jamestown have a significant focus on local foods because the area has a lot of farms, said Elliot Krieger, executive assistant for communications at the Rhode Island Department of Education. Each year, the schools have an event where an entire meal is made from locally produced food, he said. “It’s a little different in the Northeast than it might be in Florida or California where they have fresh, local produce year-round, but we do have an emphasis on” incorporating local produce, he said.
Rhode Island’s state rules for healthy lunches are more stringent than federal regulations, which may explain why so many Rhode Island schools have applied for and received awards, Krieger said.
“We’re pretty proud of our statewide nutrition standards. They require schools to serve healthy lunches — whole grains as much as possible, fruits and vegetables with every serving,” he said.
The state recently phased whole grain offerings into the lunch plan with the goal of incorporating “100 percent whole grain foods” into at least half of its grain servings by the 2013-14 school year, according to the state’s nutrition requirements. When the federal requirements changed last year, the only significant adjustment the state’s schools were required to make was decreasing the portion size of some foods in order to comply with the new federal calorie limits, Krieger said.
The Providence schools that have been awarded certification all cook the meals in the same central kitchen, Jeffrey said.
In the future, the district hopes to submit applications for all of its schools, including those that conduct their food preparation independently, he said.
The USDA challenge is useful because certified schools can become leaders and reach out to other schools about improving school nutrition and attempting the challenge, Francis said.
Francis said the application process for the awards is usually initiated by the school’s food service director, but that the process involves a team of people from the school and community working together.
“It’s not something that just happens in a vacuum … It really does take the commitment of the school, the school nurse, parents, wellness team (and) principal,” she added.
Award-winning schools receive a certificate signed by the Secretary of Agriculture, recognition on the USDA website, a banner to hang in the school and a small $500-$2,000 award directly deposited into the school’s nutrition budget, Francis said.
USDA’s challenge began in 2004 as a way to help combat obesity and gained momentum in 2010 when Michelle Obama incorporated it into her “Let’s Move” initiative, Francis said.
The challenge criteria were altered in July to exceed last year’s rise in federal nutrition standards.
But the Providence schools were certified under the old criteria, detailed above, she said. The main change schools face with the new criteria is the inclusion of school breakfast standards, she said.