With processed foods making up a majority of kids' meals, schools are tackling the issue

Posted at 12:44 PM, Sep 08, 2021

As a parent, life can get busy. Between work, getting kids to school, errands, and the countless other responsibilities they juggle, it can be difficult to make every meal at home.

A new study in JAMA has found quick options are becoming a staple of childhood diets as 67% of nutrients children consumed in 2018 came from ultra-processed foods like microwavable meals or frozen pizza, a jump from 61% in 1999.

Nationwide, schools have recognized this trend and are trying to improve food quality in their cafeterias by cutting down on the number of processed foods it offers students.

“There are a lot of issues, I could say, in school food,” said Dan Giusti, CEO of Brigade.

Giusti quit his job as a chef at the top-rated restaurant in the world a few years ago to start Brigade, a company that works to improve food quality in 250 schools across the country.

He says while there is nothing inherently dangerous about processed foods, they are stripped of a lot of the nutrients that help kids feel energized and focused.

“Although cooking from scratch doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthier, you do have control over the ingredients that you’re actually putting in the food,” said Giusti. “So, if you buy processed food, everything is in there. You have no choices. So, if you’re putting together a menu comprised of processed foods, there’s a lot of ingredients being served that you don’t have control over and that’s really the problem.”

More control over the ingredients means more control over the nutrients. In Greeley, Colorado, scratch cooking became a staple of school lunches in 2010 and allowed chefs preparing school lunches to cut the sodium in their Italian dressing by 75% and cut out the sugar altogether.

In neighboring Denver, the school district implemented scratch cooking a few years prior. Now, it says more than 60% of its foods are made from fresh ingredients.

“We make dinner rolls from scratch, and we also make garlic bread. And if we have Italian subs, we make the bread for that also,” said Khallela Ahmad, a chef at Denver Public Schools. “I like a lot of the veggie options here. I probably eat more veggie food here, and I probably eat more vegetables here also because I don’t eat a lot of vegetables at home, even though I like them.”

When we visited, kids at Ahmad’s school were able to choose PB&J, carrots, and an apple, or a chicken sandwich on a homemade bun with cherry tomatoes, and mixed fruit.

Additional funding from the federal government makes these options possible.

In 2019, The Department of Agriculture announced it received an extra $9 million for its farm to school program, which gives grants to schools nationwide.