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Michele Marchetti: Improving School Lunch One Chickpea at a Time

by on March 21, 2012 8:00 AM

Last year I wrote a series of columns about the school lunch program, the first of which was admittedly a rant. The tone of the series evolved from anger (thanks for introducing Pop-Tarts to my kid) to sympathy (wow, you have a tough job) to action (what can I do to be a part of the solution?).

Since then, I’ve helped Megan Schaper, food service director for the State College Area School District, recruit parents to a new nutrition advisory board. Schaper had a similar board a few years ago, but it fizzled because of limited attendance and a mostly narrow mindset.

The new board is off to a great start, and if you’re a parent in the school district, you may have heard about our initiatives.

On the first Wednesday of every month we’re introducing a new food item at elementary schools. Volunteers recently handed out samples of sunflower butter. The prior month students sampled chickpeas and the first Wednesday in April will feature snap peas. (If you’d like to volunteer, click on the envelope icon here and drop me a note.)

This isn’t the result of a grant. The Wednesday Taste Tests are happening because our food service director is embracing outside ideas and because parents in this district feel strongly enough about healthy eating to make time in their busy schedules to play server for an afternoon.

So far the feedback is encouraging. One mother who volunteered at Easterly Parkway Elementary remarked that entire tables of children sampled the chickpeas simply because the first “customer” she asked said yes, unleashing a domino effect. (This peer pressure also resulted in the opposite scenario, but, overall, more kids were inclined to take a bite.)

A volunteer from Corl Street Elementary reported that several kids said "their moms put (chickpeas) in their salads sometimes." Taking the chickpea from the grown-up’s salad to the school lunchroom establishes one of those connections that might make a difference the next time a child spots this highly underrated legume on her plate.

In my own house it takes persistence and countless misses to get my kids to eat vegetables. The quest has become a bit of an obsession, and I’m constantly looking for an edge.

So, I’m most excited about a Nutrition Advisory Board initiative that appropriates a marketing strategy used by the very companies we’re competing with when we serve our kids healthy food.

We don’t have SpongeBob or the cast of Cars to promote healthy options, but we do have some other “celebs” on our side: our kids’ teachers.

In at least two elementary schools, teachers will be endorsing vegetables through product placements (teachers randomly walking through the hallway munching on broccoli), shout-outs on the morning announcements (“Today’s vegetable is brought to you by Mrs. Smith in second grade!”) and pictures of the teachers eating their favorite vegetable.

When I sent an email asking the teachers at Easterly to participate, nine teachers and the principal sent enthusiastic replies, along with pictures of themselves happily munching carrots, celery and pineapple (check out the photo above of Easterly teacher Bruce Hockenberry).

With the teachers’ help, we have a shot at temporarily re-circuiting the third- or second- grade brain, which is wired for just about any combination of salt and sugar.

These initiatives are more important than ever. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requires more fruit and vegetables in school meal programs. But if we don’t come up with ways to encourage kids to eat these healthy options, they’ll end up in the trashcans.

My son is one of those kids who would eat pizza seven days a week if I let him. He knows it isn’t the best fuel for his body, but a 7 year old who hasn’t eaten since breakfast is ill equipped to make consistently healthy choices.

After three hours of following rules, kids want comfort food. And unless they’ve been raised by strict vegans, chickpeas won’t cut it. During one of the food sampling days, one of the kids who was approached with chickpeas deadpanned, "What do I get if I try it?"

It’s up to us to come up with a compelling answer.

Michele Marchetti is a freelance writer and the former managing editor of Prior to moving to State College, she spent more than 10 years writing for national magazines. Her work has appeared in a wide variety of publications, including Fortune, Fortune Small Business, Glamour, U.S. News & World Report, Runner's World, Good Housekeeping, Working Mother, Yoga Life and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter at or contact her at [email protected]
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