How do you make nutritious school food fun and appealing to children who walk past a menagerie of fast food restaurants on their way to and from school every day?
That's the question that Herman McKie is faced with as nutrition coordinator for the New York City Department of Education's Office of SchoolFood. McKie is responsible for developing and upholding the school system's comprehensive nutritional standards, which are now stricter than USDA standards.
"We only have these students in our cafeterias for one or two meals per day, so we try to surpass government recommendations," McKie said.
The standards McKie helped put in place require all school menus to be free of partially hydrogenated oils, and low in fat and sodium content; with an emphasis on whole wheat, fish- and plant-based proteins, and fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.
"It's hard because we could have the most healthful food in the neighborhood, but the food experiences kids have at home shape their personal choices," McKie said.
McKie combats this problem with educational outreach as well as nutritional changes. As part of the SchoolFood Partnership Initiative, he creates nutrition lessons and materials that teach students and administrators how to read the food guide pyramid, the importance of hand washing, how to make healthful snacks and other essential skills.
"I think the current problems stem from a lack of information," McKie said. "Nutrition is not a school subject like math or science, so it's important for us to provide children with the information they need to make healthful choices."
Another obstacle McKie is trying to overcome is the negative view many people have of "institutionalized feeding programs."
"Some kids think school lunch is government food for the poor. There's a lot of peer pressure," said McKie. "We have kids in our schools who quickly eat their food at the counter because they are afraid of being ridiculed in the cafeteria."
McKie and SchoolFood try to make school food more acceptable and appealing by serving items that look like something a child would purchase from a fast-food restaurant.
"We've created a low-fat, low-sodium pizza and a more healthful Jamaican beef patty. We even piloted a 100 percent fruit juice 'slushee' drink with no artificial colors or flavoring," McKie said. "Kids aren't going to eat something unless it's something they can identify."
Although there is a long way to go in the fight against childhood obesity, McKie is pleased with the progress. "If I see a child try our new, more healthful chicken patty and like it, that's rewarding to me," he said. "I make small gains where I can."