From farm to cafeteria: Grant helps DC students enjoy nutritious choices

Building nutritious meals

Looking back, most adults would say they were not big fans of the lunches they received at school. So how did one DC nonprofit receive a 96% student satisfaction rating for its farm-to-school meals?

“If they don’t like it, they’ll tell you,” said Lavone Walker, Cafeteria Lead for DC Central Kitchen at Smothers Elementary School in Southeast D.C. “It’s important to us that we make it tasty, so they’ll want to eat it.”

DC Central Kitchen is working to help empower children to make healthy choices through nutrition education, food awareness and locally-sourced ingredients. In what they call a “vegetable democracy,” students can get key, nutrient-dense foods on their school lunch menus by voting on its preparation.

A $275,000 UnitedHealthcare grant helps the nonprofit continue to serve local students and revitalize these taste tests as part of its Fresh Feature Friday programming.

“Students get to choose what goes on their menu by being able to taste and understand it first,” said Sami Reilly, Director of Contract Meals and Nutrition at DC Central Kitchen. “We do make sure that all the food that we serve in school is varied, but also really nutrient dense, so that the students are getting not only different food, but tasty food and food they like, too.”

study shows very few children — only about 12% — across the U.S. consume enough vegetables on a daily basis. Children need recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables for healthy growth and brain development, plus early experiences with nutritious foods can help lead to improved health into adulthood.

Through DC Central Kitchen’s Healthy School Food program, the nonprofit serves about 4,100 students each year at 19 schools in the Washington, D.C. area. In 2022 alone, DC Central Kitchen served more than 1 million school meals.

“We try to make sure they have really healthy options at school, so that the parents have a little bit less pressure.” Sami said.

The Fresh Feature Friday taste test starts with local produce, sourced within a 200-mile radius of Washington, D.C., which is prepared by dieticians in three unique and tasty ways. The students sample each option and vote on which preparation is their favorite, then that item appears on the student’s lunch menu for the next month. Along the way, expert researchers from American University supported by this UnitedHealthcare grant evaluate student attitudes and coach DCCK foodservice professionals on evidence-based strategies for nudging kids toward healthier options.

“When it’s a new recipe, our bottom line is always getting food in kids’ bellies,” said Travertine Garcia, Manager of Nutrition Programming and Compliance at DC Central Kitchen. “Research shows that kids need at least seven to eleven exposures to a new food before they like it. (This) gives them a chance to develop that taste preference, especially if it is something they are not getting exposed to at home.”

DC Central Kitchen expands its programming beyond the cafeteria with Healthy Corners, where affordable, fresh produce comes to corner stores in the area’s low-income communities.

“Parents can go out and pick up the same ingredients that the students were seeing in school,” Sami said. “It’s really important for these kids to have access to food that is made with integrity and love, and that is sourced locally, and is really nutritious and nutrient dense, because that’s only going to get them further in their day, further in their school year, and then further in life.”

This year, DC Central Kitchen celebrates 34 years of creating a more equitable food system that ensures access to healthy, dignified food and economic opportunity for all. Their new facility at the Michael R. Klein Center for Jobs and Justice allows the iconic community kitchen to expand its culinary job training program, produce more meals, create more jobs, and do more for the local community where they’re needed most.

“Everything we do here is in large part thanks to organizations like UnitedHealthcare who give their time and money to us to make sure we can continue to carry out our mission,” Sami said.

To lean more about DC Central Kitchen’s programs and how to get involved, visit their website.

Read more about the program’s impacts found by American University here.

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