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December 1, 2009

Good Food in the City

For some inner-city students, a fresh peach is a revelation. Baltimore City Public Schools are determined to change that.
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My first experience of the start of a new school year as Director of Food and Nutrition Services for Baltimore City Public Schools still stands out vividly in my mind. It was just last year, August 2008. Across the school system, students had indicated that the food was awful. For years, they'd complained about soggy pizzas and tater tots that were more useful as projectiles than as a side dish. Our 80,000-plus kids were ready for a change.
That change could not happen overnight. Ironclad contracts with vendors meant that, for the time being, we were stuck with a lot of the frozen, prepackaged items our kids had come to hate. But on that first day, I watched as three 2nd graders from a school on Baltimore's west side sank their teeth into what I hoped would be a lush, juicy symbol of hope: a peach. Our idea was as radical as it was simple. For the first time ever, we guaranteed that each of our school lunches would come with one piece of fresh fruit.
One boy rubbed the peach across his face, shocked by its velvety texture. I said, "It's supposed to feel that way." The boy beside him took a deep breath of the aroma—sharp and sweet. I said, "It's supposed to smell that way." As a third boy let the juice from a big bite slide down his chin, he could barely contain himself.
As they explained to me at the lunch table, these three boys had never eaten a peach before. The food they were used to was not fresh but processed, and when they did get fruit, it was not allowed to ripen naturally, but was helped along by the fumes of a diesel engine travelling 1,800 miles to their local store.
Today, "peach" more often refers to a flavor for candies and frozen desserts than to the actual food. That's what we need to change for kids in Baltimore and all over the United States.

Standardized, Processed, and Unhealthy

He may be a clown, but I have the utmost respect for him. Ronald McDonald is one of the most recognized icons on the planet. McDonald's built its business on a delivery method that is clean and consistent. The model is brilliant, a synthesis of marketing, logistics, standardization, economies of scale, and fierce quality control. I love aspects of the model, but I hate many of the end products, not just from McDonald's but also from the thousands of other franchises that have copied it.
And not just franchises. In the 1970s, school systems were convinced they should operate more like McDonald's. Food producers told school systems that without the quality control and standardization that only big companies could provide, schools might kill children with salmonella. We would cut out the labor cost of actual cooks by shipping in ready-made meals. But with every level of convenience comes a level of process that dilutes food to something unrecognizable.
The consequences are staggering. Between 1990 and 2005, the number of diabetes cases in the United States doubled. If current trends continue, one in three children born in 2000 will develop diabetes. As a result, the United States spends more than $174 billion on diabetes-related illnesses and treatments each year (Diabetes Association of Greater Cleveland, 2009).
Urban areas are disproportionately affected by diet-related diseases. In Baltimore City, approximately 37 percent of public high school students are overweight or at risk of becoming so (Healthy Baltimore Children, n.d.). That's 8 percentage points higher than the state and national average. These poor health indicators go hand in hand with high rates of poverty—fully 27.5 percent of Baltimore's children live below the poverty line—and low levels of academic achievement (Healthy Baltimore Children, n.d.; Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, n.d.). It only makes sense that doing right by children's health can help them perform better in the classroom.
I grew up in a generation that still felt the crippling effects of polio. Researchers, policymakers, and everyday people around the world came together to eradicate that disease, but we are doing comparatively little about childhood diabetes and other diet-related illnesses. I've seen firsthand, however, that people in cities are sick of being sick.

Small But Significant Steps

We know that the pack-and-ship model of food and nutrition service just isn't working. As gas prices rise, delivery becomes more and more expensive; in addition, the health outcomes for our children are horrendous. So in Baltimore, we're moving toward a vertically integrated model that leverages local resources and converts every point along the food supply chain into an experiential learning opportunity.
Like other school districts around the country, we face a number of substantial hurdles to providing fresh, real, nutritious food to students. At the start of the 2008–09 school year, only about 20 of our 200 schools had fully operational kitchens. Many of the others could not have prepared a full meal even if they had wanted to because they simply did not have the equipment. Instead, they were forced to warm up preplated meals trucked in from as far away as Chicago.
We would love for every school to have a high-quality, high-capacity kitchen of its own, but considering the age of some of our facilities and the severe budget constraints at every level of government, that is an unrealistic goal. Instead, we're working toward a spoke-and-hub model with a central kitchen that can push out fresh foods and ingredients—the cooked chicken that will become part of a burrito and the beef that will go into a savory stew—to any one of a dozen subkitchens at schools around the city specializing in a particular cuisine. These subkitchens can finish the meals and distribute them to schools.
We're not there yet, but important components of our local distribution model are already falling into place. In fall 2008, the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association gave Baltimore City Public Schools nine refrigerated trucks, milk coolers for every one of our schools, and a technology grant to keep track of it all—a gift worth $1.3 million.
Last December, we issued a request for proposals to supply nothing but locally grown fruits and vegetables to our schools. That contract began with the current 2009–10 school year and will mean that $600,000 of local taxpayer money stays within our state.
But none of this makes any difference unless the kids actually like the food. It can be an uphill battle. Many of our students simply are not used to eating food with natural ingredients that were grown, not synthesized and processed. The litter on our street—Popsicle sticks, microwave dinner containers, candy wrappers—tells the story of what constituted their last meal, which is what makes the simple, organic goodness of a peach such a radical proposition.
So we take small steps. Last year we piloted No Thank You Bites during lunchtime in 18 elementary schools as a way to expand students' palettes and get feedback on which new foods and ingredients they might like or might not like. At the end of the lunch line are one- or two-ounce cups, the equivalent of a bite-and-a-half, of a fruit, vegetable, or entrée item. A student can have as much of the item as he or she likes. If students like it, great. If not, they simply say "no thank you" and move on. Either way, they get a star beside their name on a list kept in plain view. Kids compete with one another for the most points, and at the end of the month there's a "constellation party" for all our taste testers. It's a forum where students can talk about what foods they like and dislike in a fun, nonthreatening environment.
For breakfast, we went even further. Recognizing the power of the clown, we created not a "happy meal" box, but a healthy meal box. It contains low-sugar cereal; 100-percent fruit juice; a carton of milk; and a whole-grain, high-protein snack with no artificial colors or preservatives. One in 20 boxes contains a code for a prize.
We also partnered with two hometown professional sports teams, the Baltimore Ravens and the Baltimore Orioles. Each team was prominently displayed on the design of the package, and schools that had the best rate of breakfast participation for the month got "breakfast with the birds"—members of the Orioles and the Ravens. Those breakfasts with professional sports icons provided natural opportunities to talk about what it takes to nurture our bodies and brains to excel in any given field. Whatever our students choose to do, we told them, it all begins with the choices they're making now. With our breakfast boxes, we went from serving 8,500 to 35,000 breakfasts a day in less than two months.
In addition to improving the nutritional content of what we provide our students, we're also using food as an educational tool, and for those who are interested, a vocational tool. In fall 2008, we opened Great Kids Farm, a 33-acre organic farm owned and operated by Baltimore City Public Schools with private funding. The farm produces fresh foods for the school system's students, earns income for the system by also selling those fresh foods to local, upscale restaurants and at local farmers' markets, houses vocational training programs in farming and food service for students, and welcomes students by the busload each week for experiential learning opportunities.
This past summer, the farm hosted 50 foster care students who participated in our Farm to Fork Summer Internship, an eight-week hands-on course that gave them experience in every aspect of the food supply chain from cultivation to harvesting, marketing, delivery, and, finally, cooking and presentation at premiere local restaurants.
Produce from Great Kids Farm is also offered at Great Kids Café, which we hope will be one of several student-run outlets that will provide work experience for students in our hospitality programs. The first location in this Great Kids Café "chain" serves breakfast and lunch for staff and visitors at Baltimore City Public Schools headquarters. It replaced the building cafeteria in July 2009.

Getting It Right

Success builds on success. We started with what we had, and we've worked hard to leverage every volunteer hour to get a variety of programs going. Part of the reason we've been able to gain a significant amount of public and private monetary and in-kind support, I believe, is because of the way food touches us all. Everyone has experience with it, and out of that experience can come a passion to get it right for ourselves and our kids.
The stakes could not be higher. A healthy nation needs healthy people. If the United States wants to remain a world leader, we must give our kids the tools they need to learn and grow. And to do that, we need a model for healthy food education and production that is scalable and transferable. It's time that schools learned to beat that clown at his own game.
References

Diabetes Association of Greater Cleveland. (2009). Diabetes statistics—United States. Available: www.dagc.org/diastatsUS.asp

Healthy Baltimore Children. (n.d.). Local efforts and information. Available:www.healthybaltimorechildren.org/infourl4834/info-url_show.htm?doc_id=478378&cat_id=1672

Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute. (n.d.). Poverty in a rich state. Available:www.marylandpolicy.org/html/research/Poverty-12-07.asp

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