It all started with a cheese quesadilla. A group of concerned parents in Fairfax County, VA learned that the cheese quesadilla on the school lunch menu had 76 ingredients. Then they learned the hamburger had 27 ingredients. That was enough to start a grassroots effort in 2010 to advocate for better school food called Real Food For Kids (RFFK).
Our approach is to work collaboratively with Food and Nutrition Services departments. We’ve also formed relationships with school boards, superintendents, students, parents, and other community stakeholders.
In Fairfax County, RFFK successfully advocated to remove over 90 percent of the artificial additives, dyes, and preservatives in the school food. The cheese quesadilla was removed from the menu and the hamburger was replaced with a 100 percent beef burger. Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Zones were implemented in all schools, as was a ban on selling sodas before, during, and after school hours.
Our advocacy efforts led RFFK board chair and former executive director, JoAnne Hammermaster, to be invited by First Lady Michelle Obama to speak at the White House in 2014 about RFFK achievements in Fairfax.
As for me, school food wasn’t on my radar, since I rarely let my children eat it. That changed after reading a 2013 article in The Washington Post about Real Food For Kids’ work in Fairfax County. I felt compelled to do something here in Loudoun, especially after reviewing the Loudoun County Public Schools’ (LCPS) school-food ingredient list. Many of the items served were filled with dyes, harmful chemicals, and preservatives.
I immediately reached out to Hammermaster, and she encouraged me to get involved. With the help of fellow Loudoun resident Cynthia Thurlow, we created a petition to gauge interest in our county. We quickly realized there were many other families that cared about this issue too; as a result, we created Real Food For Kids-Loudoun and began our journey to learn more about the policies and politics of school food.
It’s easy to complain and demand immediate changes, but what most people don’t understand is how challenging and cost-prohibitive it is for school systems to provide fresher, less-processed food items. Until school food is a priority in this country, this will continue to be a big issue for foodservice teams.
Most school lunches cost around $3; however, of that $3, approximately $1 is spent on the food itself. The remainder goes to administrative costs, including labor, supplies, maintenance, and utilities. Directors have to work within this very tight budget, many times operating in the red. The schools are reimbursed in full for those students who qualify for free-and-reduced lunch, but that doesn’t make up the deficit.
Many food and nutrition service directors are deeply concerned about the health and wellness of their students and are thinking outside the box to deliver fresh, less-processed foods. Thankfully, we have two of the most creative and progressive food and nutrition service directors right here in our region: Mr. Rodney Taylor in Fairfax and Dr. Becky Bays in Loudoun.
Real Food For Kids works closely with both teams to help them achieve their goals. We advocate on this issue to PTAs, school board members, and local politicians. In addition, and equally important, is the work we do to educate our students about eating healthfully. Providing fresher, whole foods in the schools is a laudable goal, but if no one eats it, this is for naught. That’s why we partner with the school systems to provide fun, project-based programs, such as our annual Food Day, a Culinary Expo cooking competition, and our Kids Cook Recipe Contest.
New this year is our Real Food For Kids: Healthy Habits program, which extends the lessons we share at our Food Days of adopting a healthful lifestyle. We’ve partnered with Empowered Wellness, a wellness coaching company, to work with the students and staff at Sleepy Hollow Elementary School in Falls Church. In Loudoun, we’ve partnered with George Mason University’s Nutrition Department to provide nutrition and exercise education through interactive videos and assemblies at Sully Elementary School in Sterling.
One of the questions I get asked over and over again is why I care so much when I can afford to pack a lunch for my children every day. Regardless of my situation, there are many families that cannot afford to pack a lunch. In many instances, the only meals their children receive are the breakfasts and lunches they’re served in school. We want all children to enjoy meals full of fresh, real, whole foods. There’s a prevalence of ADHD, ADD, asthma, and food allergies, as well as obesity, among school-aged children. The foods they consume have been shown to play an integral role in these conditions and illnesses.
This is why we do the work we do, and we’re excited about our growth. In fact, we’re pleased to announce our newest chapter: Real Food For Kids-Alexandria City. Also, our founder and board chair, JoAnne Hammermaster, recently moved to Atlanta, Georgia and is already establishing RFFK in that state.
As RFFK’s executive director, I’m enthusiastic about our work, our collaborative partnerships, and the opportunities we have to create positive change in our region. These changes will help all of our children have a healthier future. That’s my personal mission and the mission of Real Food For Kids.
JENNY HEIN is the Executive Director of Real Food For Kids. REAL FOOD FOR KIDS is a non-profit organization based in Fairfax, VA that’s committed to working in collaborative ways to increase the quantities of healthy foods served in Fairfax and Loudoun County Public Schools. Real Food For Kids educates children and their families through school-based programs, such as Food Day, Recipe Contests, Culinary Competitions, and Taste Testing programs.