One salad at a time, Traverse City Area Public Schools students are changing their lunchtime habits.
There are baskets of local fruit near the cash registers; for a discounted price, students can choose a full meal for lunch that must include three of five components — milk, fruit, vegetable, grain and protein — and one must be either a piece of fruit or a vegetable. Students often pay less for a meal than they do for a la carte items like hamburgers.
District officials said students are increasingly reaching for fruits and vegetables instead of chips and candy bars, indicating that a district-wide push to offer more nutritious meals with an emphasis on locally grown produce is paying off.
Tom Freitas, the district’s new food and nutrition services director, wants to offer better food and get students to eat it.
There’s a way to go. TCAPS serves roughly 6,000 lunches per day, and spent about $2 million on food in the 2012-13 school year. Most went to mega distributor Gordon Food Service. Only about $35,000 — 1.7 percent — bought locally grown fruits and vegetables.
But Freitas said TCAPS is working with distributors like Cherry Capital Foods and farmers in the region to build farm-to-school efforts.
This isn’t new stuff, but trying to change the eating habits of thousands of school kids isn’t easy.
On a recent day at East Middle School, several students said they buy a piece of fruit or vegetables only to qualify for cheaper full-meal prices; one student called it “take it and toss it.”
On that same day, the menu included Sloppy Joes, sandwiches, hamburgers, veggie burgers and two Chinese dishes, including General Tso’s chicken. While the chicken appeared to be a clear student favorite, it didn’t click with everyone. One eighth-grade girl loudly suggested it looked like “brains;” a few girls indicated that lunch regularly borders on the inedible.
That’s nothing new to parents. Getting kids to try new foods or familiar food prepared in new ways can be nearly impossible.
But the district can’t back down now; its goal must be to keep the good stuff coming and to find new ways to entice kids to try it. Having fresh fruit and vegetables available as a daily alternative may eventually get through.
It’s a fact of life that across the country and the region, more and more kids are getting their primary calories at school. Providing good food and teaching kids good eating habits is a major responsibility that goes well beyond the classroom.
Keeping kids properly fueled is a big part of learning, and the district must do its part.