School Food Reform, One No-Bake Tart at a Time

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Mackie Jimbo

To try the recipe for the raw fruit tart that Food Is Elementary educators use to teach kids about cooking and healthy eating, click here.

Catherine Dixon wheels a dilapidated, squeaky cart into a crowded classroom, where 25 eighth graders are waiting. "Today, we are making pasta primavera, a dish from Italy," she announces as she unloads boxes of pasta, fresh vegetables, and a mismatched assortment of kitchenware. As Dixon goes over the recipe, she asks the students to identify each vegetable that will be used. They instantly recognize tomatoes and bell peppers, but one vegetable—white asparagus—eludes them. "It looks like wood," one student remarks.

Dixon teaches a nutrition program called Food Is Elementary at Baltimore's Stadium School, a predominantly minority charter school. As food education has entered the national debate and gained the attention of powerful allies such as Michelle Obama, Dixon, too, has been disturbed by what she has seen: staggering obesity rates fueled by destructive, unhealthy diets.

Although Michelle Obama and her Let's Move Campaign call for major top-down food policy reform, Dixon takes a different approach. While reforming food policy is of course a long-term goal, Food Is Elementary has a more immediate priority: educating kids about healthy eating by working within existing constraints and regulations. Major policy changes face a tremendous number of barriers: the federal reimbursement rate for the school lunch program, for example, has not increased since 1973. In contrast, Food Is Elementary's bottom-up strategy could lay the necessary groundwork for changes to take place and serve as a model for other nutrition programs with similar goals.

The curriculum, founded by nutritionist Antonia Demas nearly a decade ago, emphasizes hands-on, holistic learning to familiarize students with healthy, vegetarian food. "If kids have never eaten guacamole before, they'll think it's just green muck and won't want to try it," Dixon explained. "But if they have a hand in making the guacamole, and learn about the ingredients, culture, and history behind the dish, they'll be more willing to eat—and even devour—it."

"The fruit tart would be expensive if you go out and buy all of the ingredients," Demas said. "But most of the ingredients are free if you use commodity foods."

Food Is Elementary's extensive use of USDA commodity foods sets it apart from other nutrition education programs. Commodity foods are bought by the government and allotted to schools through the National School Lunch Program. By law, all schools participating in the National School Lunch Program are entitled to receive commodity foods for free. Though many of the commodity foods—like chicken nuggets, frozen pizza, and flavored milk—are abhorred by leading nutritionists, there are also healthy foods on the list, such as beans, nuts, grains, and fruit.

Using these healthy commodity foods, most of which would be prohibitively expensive if bought on the open market, is one factor that makes Food Is Elementary a cost-effective program. As Antonia Demas noted, "I think the commodity program, if used correctly and in conjunction with classroom-based education, could really be a way to solve health problems in this country." Her integration of healthy commodity foods won Food Is Elementary a national award for creativity in implementing USDA guidelines.

Take Demas's fruit tart recipe, for example. The crust of this raw, no-bake tart uses chopped nuts and dried cherries as two of its main ingredients, both of which are listed as commodity foods. It can be topped with a variety of fresh fruits like strawberries, pears, and raspberries, which are also available as commodity foods. "The fruit tart would be expensive if you go out and buy all of the ingredients," Demas said. "But most of the ingredients are free if you use commodity foods." And even though the tart is raw, due in part to the lack of ovens at most schools, and uses ingredients that may be foreign to kids, the students still love it. "It's a good transition food because it's naturally sweet, with no added sugar," Demas explained.

Though Food Is Elementary might sound like a foolproof approach, hurdles still remain. Healthy commodity foods are supposed to be available to all schools, but in most cases, Food Is Elementary educators have had little or no access to them. Offering reasons, Demas cited lack of communication between district food service directors and food educators, the fact that nutrition programs are often a relatively low priority for school districts, and perhaps most importantly, strong incentives to order processed commodity foods.

Another major challenge is sustaining funding for programs over time. Demas's non-profit, the Food Studies Institute, offers grants for schools to implement Food Is Elementary, but after three years, Demas expects the schools to take over. "It takes about three years for administrators, parents, and the school community to buy into the program and see that it has substance," she said. But even though Food Is Elementary has been used in more than 2,000 schools nationwide, many of those programs ended once grants ran out. Costs would, of course, be less burdensome if commodity ingredients were reliably available.

Perhaps the strongest insurance Food Is Elementary can have is enthusiasm from students—something Catherine Dixon's program in Baltimore has managed to inspire. Her students unanimously told me her class was their favorite part of the day. "I like that it's more cooking than working," one student joked. Another explained, "I like that we get to chop things, and learn about the food and where it comes from—it's like going to another culture." And surprisingly, when asked what their favorite dishes that they made in class were, students tended to name the more exotic-sounding, gourmet fare: veggie burgers, sushi, and of course, that delectable raw fruit tart.

Her students' enthusiasm for the program has not gone unnoticed. The school extended Dixon's contract and funding for next year, and plans are in the works to build a portable classroom dedicated to food education—complete with sinks, cooking stations, and plenty of counter space. Dixon also secured a grant to start the school's first recycling program and arranged for Whole Foods to donate healthy snacks to the school cafeteria for three weeks. Finally, she and the students recently planted a small plot of vegetables, which they hope to be able to harvest next year.

Amidst all the success, Dixon tries to maintain a realistic mindset. "It's disheartening to find that most students still eat Popeye's fried chicken and pizza at home," she said. "But if I can change just one kid, then I know I'm doing my job." And that is part of the beauty of Food Is Elementary: maintaining realistic goals and making the best of current policies to inspire incremental, long-term change.

Recipe: Antonia's Raw Fruit Tart