From Jamie Oliver's hit show, "Food Revolution," to the Obamas planting a kitchen garden at the White House, the way we eat has leapt into the national spotlight. The public schools in Fayetteville are paying attention: The Fayetteville School District has hired a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America to direct its child nutrition program.
Adam Simmons says he wants to bring "real change" to not just the types of foods served to Fayetteville's children, but how that food is prepared. He's promoting "old-school" cooking methods — cooking meals from scratch, as opposed to pre-packaged convenience foods — and increasing the amount of locally grown foods in school menus. Simmons is originally from Helena, but his grandparents owned and operated restaurants all over the state, so he "grew up cooking." He spent some time cooking in high-end restaurants in Aspen, where he served presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton. In addition to his new position, he teaches culinary classes and nutrition at Northwest Arkansas Community College.
"Our health as a nation is at a critical point; if we do not change the way we eat we are in store for some terrible health problems down the line," Simmons says. "If we do not instill good nutrition in our children, we are dooming them to an unhealthy life."
On that point, there is little debate. Childhood obesity rates have been soaring since the 1980s, and Arkansas currently ranks second in the nation.
First on Simmons' plate is to "beat the stigma" that school lunches have. On that topic, he has his work cut out for him. Recent scandals involving schools around the nation serving pet-food-quality meat, and even tainted meat, dominated headlines and prompted the USDA to tighten regulations earlier this year.
School lunches have always had a bad reputation. As Starr Austin, mother of an Asbell Elementary student, puts it, "I don't think they [school meals] are very healthy. There's way too much brown on the plate." She explains that there isn't one reason why she thinks the meals have "poor nutrition," but that it's the adding up of the little things: "Having the fresh veggies separate [from the serving tray], having candy for sale, using candy as a reward, not enough access to water — it all adds up."
She's not alone in her assessment. The U.S. Task Force on Childhood Obesity's report acknowledges that, "unfortunately, some key aspects of current school meals, other foods at school, and environmental factors are contributing to obesity and failing to support good nutrition ..." The report goes on to state that 93 to 94 percent of school meals failed to meet nutritional standards, mainly because they exceeded the limits for fat, saturated fat and calories. Another problem identified in the report was that schools offered few whole-grain foods, and French fries and other potato products accounted for too many of the vegetables on school lunch menus.
Ramay Junior High in Fayetteville student Annabelle Hall has mixed feelings about school meals. She says she "rarely" eats school lunch, and if she forgets her lunch at home, she simply doesn't eat because, she says, "I don't particularly care for the food, and they don't have a salad bar." Yet she does admit to liking some things she knows she shouldn't: "I like the ice cream, cookies, and some of the food, but it's very high in sodium, and although the taste is enjoyable, it doesn't taste real."
To get a taste of what he's doing now, I meet Simmons at Fayetteville's Owl Creek School, which teaches children from pre-K to seventh grade. It's breakfast time, the meal Austin described as "atrocious." The cafeteria's morning chaos is interrupted by a woman's voice over the loudspeaker, urging the students to use "voice number one." In the kitchen, they are serving scrambled egg burritos (made with real eggs, Simmons assures me) with individual bags of graham crackers; the students can choose either fruit (today it's fresh apples) or juice. Alternatively, students can choose a small package of cereal, such as corn flakes or puffed rice, with milk and fruit or juice. Simmons acknowledges that the cereal option isn't a good breakfast, but, as he says, "We'd rather offer them something [they'll eat] ... than have them choose nothing."
Despite widespread agreement among nutritionists and moms alike that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I can't help but notice how skimpy these breakfasts look. Simmons' face looks genuinely pained as he explains the reality behind school breakfasts: "We only get half of what we get for lunch for breakfast," he says, "and no commodities." The commodities are the meats, fruits, flour, eggs, oil and other foods the USDA provides to schools across the country. "My choices are limited predominately by money," he says. Whole-grain, high-fiber granola costs about 40 cents per serving, he says, whereas the regular, sugared cereals cost only about 17 cents.
In the kitchen, we see Simmons' goal of using more traditional food-preparation techniques in practice. Brenda Vazquez, a cafeteria worker, is kneading a giant ball of bread dough to make rolls for lunch. Simmons points out that making foods from scratch not only saves money, but is better for you — processed foods tend to be higher in sugars and sodium. He explains that by using the cheese and ground beef from the USDA and rolling burritos themselves, they can be made for 17 cents each, half the price of a frozen burrito.
Simmons' "back to basics" agenda actually means more work for cafeteria staff, but he says they are more than willing to do the work to make sure the kids get nutritious meals. Simmons has nothing but praise for the "lunch ladies." "Probably no one cares about the kids more than those ladies," he says. "Sometimes the ladies will pay for the kids' meals" if they forget their lunch money, he says.
Next we visit the school's garden, just a few steps away from the kitchen. Cabbages, herbs, tomatoes, and strawberries are growing in the six raised beds that were salvaged, along with a greenhouse, from the now-closed Jefferson Elementary School. This is the third year Owl Creek has had a garden; this year, the pre-K class was in charge of planting, maintaining and harvesting the crops, which will be served to the whole school at the end of the year. "Having kids get their hands dirty — that's what's most important," he says. "That, and knowing where food comes from."
Simmons wants to see more fresh, local foods available on school lunch trays. Currently, less than 5 percent of food served at Fayetteville schools comes from local sources; Simmons hopes to increase that to 50 percent. He hopes to achieve this though creating more school gardens, building relationships with farmers who will grow exclusively for the schools and increasing participation in farm-to-school programs, one of the recommendations made in the Task Force's report.
Farm-to-school programs were first introduced into the Child Nutrition Act (which sets the standards and funding for school meal programs across the country) six years ago, but weren't funded in subsequent years. Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, sponsored by Sen. Blanche Lincoln, school gardens like these, as well as farm-to-school programs, would be funded to the tune of $40 million dollars. The bill made it through committee, but is currently stalled in both houses of Congress over questions about how to pay for it.
Three Fayetteville elementary schools — Washington, Leverett and Asbell — have been participating in a farm-to-school program for the last eight years. Cara Corbin, assistant director of the Fayetteville Farmer's Market, coordinates it with Simmons. Together, they discuss how much produce is needed and how much the district can pay from its limited budget. "Good food doesn't come cheap," Corbin says, adding that it all comes down to the "real costs of food," including the environmental and fair wage costs. "Nobody is getting rich off this," she says.
That lack of funding is the biggest challenge Simmons faces to serving kids healthy, fresh meals. "I am given about $2.67 for lunch," Simmons said. "Half goes to labor, and 25 cents goes to milk; that leaves me around $1 to feed our children a healthy meal made up of the components set forth to me by the USDA."
One of the farms participating in the farm-to-school program is Dickey Farms, owned by Deana Dickey and her husband. In past years, Dickey has sold winter squash, tomatoes and broccoli to the program. "It all depends on what's able to be grown early and late; it's seasonal." One of the problems, she says, is that the school calendar is in direct conflict with when the most produce is available — a holdover from the days when nearly every family lived on a farm and needed its children to help work during the harvest season. However, produce can be frozen or otherwise processed to keep it available year-round.
Dickey says she'd like to see more schools involved in the farm-to-school program. "Eating [fresh food] at school would help kids try it; if they see their friends eating it, they'll be more likely to try it themselves."