Food Coaches Help Schools' Youngest Students Make Better Food Choices

Imagine, for a moment, that you're five years old. After a busy morning in Kindergarten, you notice that your stomach is growling. It's time for lunch. Unless you brought food from home, you'll be eating what's served in your school's cafeteria. You get in line and grab a tray. You're barely tall enough to see the food behind the counter, and your teacher isn't there to help because she's having her lunch elsewhere. So when the lady wearing the plastic gloves asks you what you want to eat, you're not sure what to say. Then you might notice something familiar -- maybe a hot dog, spaghetti, or some chicken nuggets -- so you point to it and watch as it's placed on your tray.


Then you move to the milk cooler. Here, you have no trouble deciding what you want. There's a green carton, a blue carton, maybe a pink carton. But the only carton you're interested in is the brown one, which you eagerly grab because you know that brown means CHOCOLATE!!


There's one more stop before you get to sit down and eat: the fruit and vegetable bar. There's a bowl of whole apples, a bowl of whole oranges, kiwi halves, baby carrots, celery, cherry tomatoes, broccoli (yuck!) and cauliflower (double-yuck!). You grab an apple, because it's shiny and red, and then head to the check out.


Fifteen minutes later, lunchtime is over. You ate most of your hot dog, drank your chocolate milk, but ran out of time before you could take more than one bite out of your apple. So it gets dropped into the compost bin along with your empty milk carton, paper napkin, and compostable "spork."


This is a scenario that plays out daily in school cafeterias that participate in the USDA's "offer vs. serve" program. Offer vs. serve (OVS) requires that students, even Kindergartners, be given total autonomy in choosing the food they want to eat for lunch. In other words, they can only be offered choices, not recommendations, by food service employees and lunchroom paraprofessionals.


But some parents think kids, especially in the younger grades, need a little more guidance when deciding what to eat. So, in some schools, parents are volunteering to spend a couple of hours a week as lunchroom "food coaches."


I first heard about food coaching at my own kids' school, Groveland Elementary, in the Minnetonka school district, located about 15 miles west of Minneapolis. Two of my fellow moms, Amy Chappelle and Kelly Abernathy, have printed and posted fliers throughout the school to recruit other parents to join them as food coaches. Last spring, the two of them, who both have first-grade sons at Groveland, heard about a similar program at the Hopkins school district, and then pitched the idea to Groveland's principal and Minnetonka's nutrition services supervisor.


"We told them that classrooms are fine for teaching kids how to read and write, but the cafeteria is the best place to teach them how to eat," said Chappelle, when I met with her and Abernathy two weeks ago.


"To do this, we need volunteers who can gently guide students as they make their way through the lunch line," explained Abernathy. "This would include encouraging kids to take a bite of something they've never tried before. Or maybe even share some nutrition information with them in some fun way."


"For instance, we talked about getting Dave (popular Groveland principal Dave Parker) to dress up like a pea pod or a stalk of broccoli," laughed Chappelle. "Like Jamie Oliver."


I didn't have a chance to ask Principal Parker if he'd be willing to don a vegetable costume to get kids to eat better, but, according to Chappelle and Abernath, he's very supportive of the food coaching initiative. So is Minntonka's nutrition services supervisor Jane Bender, whom I talked to by phone last week. She echoed Chappelle's comment about lunchtime learning. "This is a great way to use the lunchroom as a classroom, to get kids to try something new." Then she added: "But the volunteers have to be careful not to be intimidating or pushy."


According to Bender, the USDA guidelines for OVS are very strict about allowing children to make their own food selections. If a food coach gets too militant or strident telling kids what they should or should not eat, the school district can lose its right to be be an OVS participant.


"And if that happens," Bender said, "then we can't offer the variety of food that we do now. We'd have to go back to the days of the lunch lady serving everyone the same thing three things."


Bender explained that the most obvious benefit of OVS is the reduction of food waste. But even more important, in her opinion, is that kids are more likely to eat something they put on their plates themselves.


"I used to work in eating disorders, so I know that kids can't be controlled. A food coach should be there to encourage healthy choices, and kids will respond best to praise, not restrictions."


One of my pet peeves in the school lunchroom is the inclusion of chocolate milk as an alternative to white; so I asked Bender if a food coach could tell students that white milk is the more healthful choice.


"No," she quickly answered. "Because we don't want to run the risk of that child taking something she doesn't want and then not drinking it." Then it's not just a matter of food waste, she said. "It's a matter of that child not getting the calcium and vitamin D that's in every carton of milk, regardless of flavor."


I pushed back a little. What if the child takes a cookie? (Yes, much to my chagrin, cookies are occasionally included on Groveland's menu.) Can the food coach, then, encourage the child to take white milk, instead of chocolate, to reduce the amount of sugar that she'll be consuming when adding a dessert to her meal?


"Well..." and Bender paused before continuing. "As long as it's done gently and positively. Not in a parental, 'don't do this' sort of way."


Chappelle and Abernathy get it. Like me, they would prefer to be more proactive in their food coaching, but they understand the need to take a more moderate, less polarizing approach to helping kids eat better.


Last fall, for example, just before Thanksgiving, they set up a lunchtime demonstration that featured many of the harvest vegetables that would appear alongside roast turkeys. They were pleased that so many children were interested in their display of sweet potatoes, yams, and squash, and were curious enough to try some. And this coming May, they are planning four days of food tastings, which would feature spring vegetables served by fire fighters, police officers, high school students, and maybe even some pro athletes.


All they need to make this happen is more parents interested in taking a turn as food coach.


"We still need a few more volunteers to get this up and running on a regular basis," said Abernathy. "I know there are more out there who would be really good at this. We want to let them know that this opportunity exists, and that we need them to help us make this successful."


I applaud the approach that Abernathy and Chappelle are taking. They want to make a difference, but they're realistic about what they can and can't do. Can they change how the USDA regulates school lunches? Probably not. But they've found another way to help kids eat better. And instead of just packing nutritious lunches for their own kids and leaving it at that, they're investing a considerable amount of time developing an approach that will help all of Groveland's students live healthier, happier lives.


And, although I'm not thrilled with much of the food that schools serve to their students, I think Jane Bender and her team at Minnetonka schools are doing the best they can do with the resources they've been allocated. Yes, I'm disappointed that their food vendor buys from Tyson and ConAgra and SaraLee; but I'm happy that it also offers locally-grown produce when available. And I'm impressed by the line-up of local suppliers that Bender uses to boost the quality of her school lunches: Lakewinds Co-op, which supplies multi-grain bread, rolls and buns; Thousand Hills Cattle Company, which supplies grass-fed-all-beef, nitrate-free hot dogs (Bender said normally she would not be enthusiastic about serving hot dogs, but the Thousand Hills version is easy to say yes to); and Hastings Creamery, which supplies rGBH-free milk (chocolate included) under the brand name Valley View.


Even though I'm not ready to give up packing my own kids' lunches, I'm now motivated to join the ranks of Groveland's food coaches. In fact, I've been working on a script for what I'd say to that five-year-old who chooses the hot dog -- presumably a Thousand Hills hot dog. Do you think Jane Bender would approve of this:


"Good choice! You're going to love that hot dog! (Note the use of praise.)


"You know, that hot dog will taste especially good washed down with lots of cold, refreshing, delicious WHITE milk. That's the one in the pretty blue carton. (A gentle, positive suggestion.)


"Don't forget some fruit. An apple would be great! (Not intimidating or pushy in the least, wouldn't you agree?)


"Just try to eat it first... okay, sweetie?"


If that's not USDA-approved food coaching, I don't know what is.






Shari Danielson is a frequent contributor fo Simple, Good and Tasty. 

Her last post was An SGT Retrospective on 2010.