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What are our children eating at school?

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VPM News Focal Point
An effort to provide healthier, fresh options for Virginia’s students that’s helping local farmers and our kids.

There’s a connection with what students eat and how they perform academically, so Virginia’s Department of Education is trying to get healthier food options in front of kids in the Commonwealth. We speak with Dr. Sandy Curwood, director of Virginia’s school nutrition programs about this new effort. 


ANGIE MILES: Educators here in the Commonwealth have begun a program meant to get children excited about eating fresh, healthier foods grown by Virginia farmers. Joining us today to talk about this new initiative is Dr. Sandra Curwood, director of Virginia's Office of School Nutrition Programs. And welcome Dr. Curwood.

SANDY CURWOOD: Thank you, thank you so much for the invitation. I really appreciate it.

And you go by Sandy. It's okay if we-

Yes, either way. Thank you.

All right. So Sandy, most of us remember something about our school lunches, and maybe don't know as much as we should about school nutrition generally. Can you talk to us about school nutrition?

Yeah, I always hope when people reflect on their childhood experiences with school food, that they have a smile on their face, right? 'Cause there's some happy memory that goes along with that. So the Department of Education, Office of School Nutrition Programs administers the nutrition programs for all the schools in Virginia. All public schools are required to participate in the national School Lunch and School Breakfast programs. And those programs are really designed to ensure that children have access to healthy meals during their school day.

Okay, I'm thinking actually growing up in Powhatan, and I do have that smile, we had the best cafeteria food, and not everyone can say that, but it was delicious. And you're aiming to make food better and better for Virginia kids with the Virginia Foods For Virginia Kids program. How does it work?

Okay, so the Virginia Food for Virginia Kids Initiative really started when we wanted to ensure that the children had access to better-quality food, more nutrient-dense and more locally produced. There are so many benefits to children having access to good, healthy food, right? So it increases their health and wellness, it increases their attendance at school, which is a concern post-pandemic, as well as academic achievement, because we know that when kids are engaged at school, whether it's with their cafeteria lady or their teacher, that they're connected with a caring adult. And so when it comes to the food, we really want to make sure that we're using those resources the best we can to benefit all children.

I'm hearing think globally, eat locally is basically what you're doing with this. You've piloted in just a few schools so far, and plan to expand. Explain about that.

Yeah, so the initiative is really, it started with the Department of Education, but we have many important stakeholders and partners. So for example, Real Food for Kids out of Northern Virginia, the Chef Ann Foundation, the Center for Equal Literacy out of California. So these partners bring their expertise and their support through a variety of strategies. So part of the initiative is not only about cooking healthier food, so scratch cooking takes some skill building. So that's one of the components of not only the Chef Ann Foundation, but some of our other state agency partners. So workforce development is important component of that. Then procuring the food, like where do you get healthy ingredients? Well, our local farms, and producers here in Virginia provide ample supply of seasonal and delicious products that then we bring into the schools that the staff can prepare. And then when you think about cultural inclusivity, right? So like you said, global initiatives, but yet we eat locally. So how can we bring those cultures, and cuisines, and customs into our school so that every child feels like they're connected, and everybody wants to learn about foods from all over the world. So it's really a great opportunity to bring in all of those elements into the program. So when you asked about the eight, we had eight brave volunteers that started with us, eight school divisions across Virginia, one from each of the superintendent's regions to represent the whole state. And we did some test work with them, assessing what their capacity is with the equipment, staff training, and then one of the things that they really needed was supply-chain assistance, that's been an issue for all of us, right? So looking at where we can get those foods from their local farms. And we have two food hubs that have been instrumental in getting those foods directly to the schools: 4P Foods out of Northern Virginia, and ASD out of the Southwest. So they've been fantastic partners in this work also.

It sounds comprehensive. There are a lot of moving parts, and I understand that California had a program similar to this. Virginia's is modeled in part on the California program, right?

Yeah, so I came from Virginia and I was, I mean, excuse me, I came from California and now a Virginian, and as a school nutrition director in California we were one of the founding members of the California Food For California Kids. Virginia is a little different, and we have some different opportunities for our farmers, we have a lot of small farmers, we have a lot of regional aggregators, we have current technical education as a way to get kids into culinary arts and agricultural programs. So those become our foundation for expanding the program by getting more students and more apprenticeship programs to find great jobs in school nutrition for those folks.

Now it's been more than a decade since Michelle Obama introduced a push to get healthier foods in schools. And we heard some differing opinions about that, including that some kids were throwing away the foods that were deemed healthy, but they really weren't interested in eating. Does a program like this help to encourage kids to be interested in eating healthier foods?

Absolutely, and strategies to do that are engage the students, right? Get their preferences, ask for their opinions, have them do sampling and taste testing, linking the school gardens with what can grow in what season, and then using those crops either from the school gardens or the school farms back into the cafeterias, then kids really have an inspiration, and a connection with their food. And then nutrition education, right? Nutrition education is not easily accessible for anybody really, so how can we weave that into the fabric of the regular curriculum so that the kids are learning that as they go? So those are some strategies that tend to work, and then when we have cafeteria staff, our school nutrition professionals, that are so proud of their work, and they connect with the kids, then the children are really excited to see their cafeteria staff every day, they're more likely to come to school, they're more likely to take chances with foods maybe they haven't tried before.

I remember some of the staff in Powhatan, and they were very kind, as well as being excellent cooks. So they were memorable. You're also trying to tie things in with the curriculum a little bit.

Yeah, so every grade level has a standard of learning, so how do we weave nutrition, Ag, environmental stewardship into those, it's not actually as difficult as that might seem. Every curriculum has something that connects back to nutrition, back to food. So what better to learn about it in the classroom, test it in the garden, and then experience it in the cafeteria. And that becomes really very holistic in terms of how we educate our kids.

It sounds delicious.

And fun.

I'm wondering if there are any examples of dishes that are on the menu.

So, you'll laugh, but meatloaf and mashed potatoes is one of the kids' favorite. Homemade meatloaf, it says something about home, right? So that is one of the recipes that they've been testing down in Greensville, and the kids really liked that. Chicken Tinga is another item that the kids really have become fond of. And when you think about some of the vegetarian cuisines, or vegetarian dishes, that are important in certain cultures, right? Take a chickpea masala, a chana masala is absolutely delicious, and it kind of has a Middle-Eastern Indian flare, the kids really enjoy it. It's very flavorful, but not spicy. So even if you're in third grade, you're not afraid to try that.

Okay, Sandy, now we are all ready to eat. Thank you so much for joining us. Dr. Sandra Curwood talking about Virginia Foods For Virginia Kids.

VDOE: School Nutrition

No Kid Hungry Virginia

Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.