When seeking to understand some of the issues with today's school lunches, we thought we'd go straight to a top U.S. "lunch lady." Joni Davis, Child Nutrition Supervisor for the Sioux Falls, South Dakota School District accepted a Bronze Award in the USDA’s Healthier U.S. School Challenge as she attended a White House reception hosted by First Lady Michelle Obama to recognize the accomplishment. Best Food Facts spoke with Joni to get her thoughts on the importance of providing healthful diets for our school children.
Best Food Facts: You were awarded the bronze award from the USDA’s Healthier U.S. School Challenge and attended a White House reception with Michelle Obama in recognition of improvement in the quality of your school district’s meals. What kinds of things did you implement to earn this distinction?
Davis: The USDA’s Healthier U.S. School Challenge provided us the opportunity to document some of the things we’ve been doing over the last few years. We’ve been working to improve not only the nutrition but the physical activity of our school environment. We’ve reduced fat in our meats and in the milk. We’ve worked to get a steady supply of fruits and vegetables when we can as well as whole grains and legumes.
Best Food Facts: How has this been received by your students?
Davis: We joke with our students that we’re trying to make beans and legumes our friends. We’ve taken it kind of slow and gradually introduced new items to the kids. We’ve held student taste-testing sessions to get their input. They say it takes 15 tries before a person decides whether they like something or not and so far things are going very well for us in providing healthier options for our students.
Best Food Facts: In your opinion, how big is the childhood nutrition problem in the United States?
Davis: It’s very real. Statistics tell us that one-third of U.S. adults and 17 percent of our children are overweight. A group of military leaders recently sent a letter to President Obama saying the physical condition of new recruits is a national concern because they are unable to accept so many into the military because they are overweight.
When we look at some of the health issues adults in the U.S. are facing such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol brought on by lifestyle choices, it drives home the point that we need to help our children make good choices now so they can avoid these kinds of problems. Our goal should be to give our children the healthiest start possible.
Best Food Facts: What are your thoughts on the First Lady’s efforts in improving childhood nutrition?
Davis: It’s very exciting that Michelle Obama has gotten involved in this area. She’s a mother and wants her kids to be happy, healthy and successful and it’s something all parents can relate to. To have someone of her stature start the conversation at the national level – just getting us all to talk about it – is a huge plus.
Best Food Facts: In 2010 the Los Angeles Unified School District, which serves up to 650,000 meals daily, replaced things such as flavored milk, chicken nuggets, corn dogs, and nachos with healthier options. The Los Angeles Times reported the move was a flop as school lunch participation dropped significantly. What are your thoughts on what happened there?
Davis: Sometimes it’s tough to be a leader. It’s hard to make the changes that you know are needed for our children’s future health. In the school lunch program success and failure is determined by how many kids join you for lunch. When those numbers drop it’s a great concern. It’s difficult to make these kinds of changes and bring the whole community along with you and help them understand why such changes are needed.
I have great empathy for them. We’re all fighting this battle in different ways. It’s easy to prepare a menu that you know the kids will like. It’s more difficult to get the variety into their diets so you can help them be successful and healthy.
Best Food Facts: What’s your advice to parents who would like to improve their children’s nutritional habits?
Davis: I think the key is to recognize that this is a journey. It’s not something that can be accomplished overnight. Establish a goal of working more fruits and vegetables into your diet. It’s an easy way to start. Kids need role models and need to see adults making healthy choices.