"What was wrong with school lunches as they were … was that they were school lunches. And there was a lot wrong with school lunches," says Betti Wiggins, officer of nutrition services for the Houston Independent School District.
Wiggins would know. She presides over the seventh largest school district in the country, with 280 locations and 209,000 kids. School lunch servers in her school district dole out 47 million meals per year. And to Wiggins' way of thinking, in the past, many of those school lunches were bad.
"It was processed food and canned vegetables; it was beige and pasty; it was high-carbohydrate," she says. "Over the years we dumbed down the food, we made it highly processed, we made it cheap."
Not on Wiggins' watch.
"School lunches are finally catching up with rest of the country in terms of serving high-quality food," she says. "I just changed our mission. Now it's not just to feed kids—our mission is to deliver good-quality food. It takes more than books for kids to learn."
How Houston school districts created school lunches that wow
The secret to revamped school lunches is twofold: finding adequate funding, and employing a team of chefs and nutritionists to create and execute a healthy meal plan. There are seven chefs, seven dietitians and one medical doctor on staff in the Houston Independent School Districts. They're in charge of the menu. And then there's the Community Eligibility Provision, a federal program that makes sure every child gets a meal, regardless of whether they can afford it or not. That takes care of the cost barrier and, most importantly, "ensures that all of our kids have the same tools when they enter the classroom," according to Wiggins. "It lets all of our kids enter the room as equals."
Creating lunches that kids want to eat
David Husbands is the executive chef in the Houston school district. It's his job to come up with creative, healthy, kid-approved meals that also meet the strict federal guidelines for cost and nutrition targets. His meals have to fall within acceptable limits for sodium, sugar, fat and calories, while boosting kids' consumption of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and healthy fats. Oh, and the kids have to like it enough to eat it.
"We're always working on eye appeal and flavor," Husbands says. "Ultimately, our goal is to get food to kids they might not have eaten before. Maybe they come from situations where food like that is not available to them, so we like to introduce different types of vegetables and cuisines."
On the menu for one school today: a banh mi sandwich and a whole-grain lo mein with mandarin oranges and mixed greens, inspired by a Mandarin Chinese immersion school that's part of the Houston Independent School District. Wiggins peers closely at the salad-filled plate: "Baby spinach in the salad—you don't see any iceberg anywhere, do you?" she remarks, with a satisfied look.
The link between healthy school lunches and doing better in school
The research is in: we know for a fact that kids do better in school when they eat healthy foods for lunch.
"Food is what fuels everything, body and mind," Husbands says. "It's the most important part of what you do every day—except breathing air and drinking water."
And as Wiggins and her team have observed, if you make the healthy option look good, kids will choose it on their own. Out of the 280 schools in the Houston school district, 157 have salad bars.
"I consider it a success when kids take salad over the chicken nuggets," Wiggins says. "It's so important for kids to be well-fed because they have to enter the classroom and be ready to learn. If you're hungry, your attention span is on your hunger. We have to change the food system. That's how we impact the health and well-being of our kids."
Betti Wiggins is the officer of nutrition services at Houston Independent School District, which has become a model for school districts looking to revamp their school lunches. www.houstonisd.org