Gone are the days when a greasy burger and a side of fat-laden fries were the cafeteria staples. At many Atlanta Public Schools, students are now digging into sushi, smoothies and flat-bread pizza, thanks to a farm-to-school movement designed to increase variety, freshness and healthy choices.
The farm-to-fork craze that has so captivated the country inspires the farm-to-school program, a 4-year effort that has introduced students in kindergarten through high school to the benefits - and tastes - of locally-grown fruits and vegetables that are dramatically changing cafeteria menus.
“Right now, we’re enjoying apples from Ellijay and tomatoes from Nashville,” said Marilyn Hughes, the district’s director of nutrition since 2003. “They’re just part of the local variety we serve to students.”
Going local is a mandate of a 2010 federal law which led to more districts buying food from their regions. “For us, that region means any state that touches on Georgia,” explained Hughes. “But there are still plenty of local farmers who work with us.”
The program has engendered a number of changes to the menus at the district’s 56 elementary, middle and high schools where 75 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. One of the most popular changes was the creation of a salad bar loaded with fresh fruits, vegetables and salad blends such as three-bean or carrot and raisin. In the kitchen, foods are now baked instead of fried, and traditional recipes have gotten a makeover.
“Some of the older high school students may have been accustomed to pizzas with a little more fat content, but now we use a flatbread crust that actually creates a tastier pizza with low fat ingredients,” said Hughes. “And we don’t fry; we bake, which presents a challenge for French fries, but we’re still working on that.”
Instead of dessert, students have options such as fresh or canned fruit or a fruit smoothie.
“We now have students who came to us after this program started who have never had a dessert in school,” said Hughes. “They don’t remember the days of foods with non-nutritious calories.”
Hughes and chefs across the district are always looking for new ways to increase not just the freshness but the variety of offerings on the menu. One of the most successful new additions is sushi.
“We found a local vendor who makes it fresh daily, and we just introduced it last month,” said Hughes. “The students were very excited about it. They even told us they wanted vegetarian as well as soy-based sushi. Now, it’s being offered twice a week in all the high schools.”
Along with new flavors in the cafeteria, APS students have chances to sample fruits and vegetables in their classrooms. “We let them taste what we don’t serve, so they might get to try blood oranges or parsnips,” said Hughes.
Students at Bethune Elementary in downtown recently got a close-up look at local produce during an event that marked farm-to-school month. Activities included cooking demonstrations, presentations by local producers and an appearance by Captain Planet.
“The idea was to let students see the people behind the fruits and vegetables they get to eat,” said Hughes. “We’re also hoping to get the school’s garden restarted this year. Our intent is to have fruits and vegetables growing right there that we can use.”