All students in the state of Minnesota will get free breakfast and lunch starting this next school year. With more children now likely to eat two meals a day at school, many parents are grateful for the provided food, while simultaneously wondering how to ensure their kids are getting good nutrition and healthy options away from home.
Leonard Marquart, Ph.D., director of graduate studies for the Master of Professional Studies in Applied Sciences Leadership in the College of Continuing and Professional Studies and associate professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences, answers questions about how school leaders, caregivers and community members can come together to make healthy school meals a priority.
Q: How can I know if my child is getting proper nutrition when eating school meals?
Dr. Marquart: We all know how important it is for children to get enough calories for growth and development, but it’s important to consider the quality of those calories too. The best thing parents and caregivers can do is talk to their children and find out what they’re eating when away from home. What did they eat for breakfast and lunch? What foods did they enjoy and what foods did they avoid? Did they have any fruits, vegetables or whole grains with their meals? These are great questions for car rides to and from school or extracurricular activities. Finding out what your child is offered and what they choose to eat can help you better advocate for nutritious choices in the cafeteria. It’s also important for caregivers to educate children about how they can choose healthier options.
Q: How can I advocate for healthier cafeteria food in my school?
Dr. Marquart: Parent advocacy is best done through an understanding and communicative relationship with the food service director, who is your friend and advocate. They are responsible for the production of nutritious and delicious meals in the cafeteria, while also adhering to all governmental regulations. As you can imagine, it’s an extremely complicated job with many different factors dictating the food that ultimately ends up on the lunchroom table. To complicate things further, food service directors must also balance offering meals that are both nutritious and palatable for children. For example, adding more whole grains is beneficial for kids because whole grains include fiber, vitamins and minerals, and promote digestive health and well-being. Unfortunately, most children don’t enjoy 100% whole grain products. So a potential solution could be to offer bread that is 50% whole grain and tastes similar to familiar white bread, then gradually increasing the amount of whole grains as student tastebuds adjust.
Q: What barriers do schools face when providing healthy meals for kids?
Dr. Marquart: Providing healthy school lunches requires collaboration from the entire food system. Schools must have access to healthy foods that fit within their budget. Staff must have the knowledge to choose healthy offerings and the skillset and equipment to prepare these foods in a way that kids will actually eat. However, we as community members, businesses and society must all believe and care enough to allow school meals to be all that they can be. The next big breakthrough in nutrition will come when we figure out how to intentionally work together toward food security. How to allow the healthy choice to be the easy, affordable and tasty choice. By identifying and breaking down those barriers, we can allow the right food to be in the right place at the right time.
Q: How can parents work with school leaders, local farmers and community businesses to prioritize healthy school breakfasts and lunches?
Dr. Marquart: Families can educate their children about healthy options and advocate for changes with school staff, but they can not make impactful change alone. Major sectors including government, industry, academia and major disciplines (biological, behavioral and technological) must work together to successfully impact this area. This necessitates new mental models of how to work together in creating, delivering and serving healthier school meals. The ultimate quality of food delivered into the school cafeteria all depends on the intentions and working relationships of those who grow, process, deliver and serve the food.
Q: How does your work help Minnesotans provide a healthier future for their children?
Dr. Marquart: My colleagues and I have worked towards the long-term goal of providing research-based evidence to increase the availability and consumption of grain-based foods with enhanced nutritional qualities. Our work influenced regulations for establishing the percentage of whole grain ingredient content of whole grain foods served in the USDA School meals program, while we worked with food companies to establish the type and amount of whole grains that children will eat. There is such a need to properly train food, nutrition and dietetic students to effectively work with farmers, businesses and communities in this evolving and creative space. Currently, as the director of graduate studies for the Applied Sciences Leadership degree in CCAPS, I’m most excited about training the next generation of leaders to continue work in this area and to develop the skills necessary to solve this challenge and other important challenges impacting our state. Learning to allow things to happen through collective efforts, rather than forcing solutions, might be one of the most beneficial learning experiences through the Applied Sciences Leadership program.