Of Carrots And Kids: Healthy School Lunches That Don't Get Tossed

Dec 2, 2014
Originally published on December 5, 2014 10:50 am

You can lead a child to vegetables, but can you make her eat them?

A child, for instance, like Salem Tesfaye, a first-grader at Walker-Jones Educational Campus in Washington, D.C. Tesfaye picked up a lunch today that's full of nutrition: chicken in a whole-wheat wrap, chopped tomatoes and lettuce from local farms, a slice of cantaloupe and milk.

But, she confesses, sometimes she throws her lunch out. I ask her what she did today. "I threw all of it away," she says softly.

This is "plate waste," a big reason for the political battle over school lunch standards. Public health advocates — and the White House — are promoting school lunch standards that require lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Some school lunch providers, meanwhile, say that these rules are wasting money and time, because more food is going into the trash.

Indeed, in the lead-up to Thanksgiving, schoolkids flooded Twitter with unappetizing photos of lunches they were being served, using the sarcastic hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama — a reference to the first lady, who has championed healthier school lunch standards.

Both sides in this argument tell a compelling story, and I wanted to see the reality behind it. So over the course of a recent week, I followed the staff of one school lunch provider as they carried out a small veggie experiment.

That experiment began with a quick conversation between a dietitian, Katie Nash, and a chef, Ed Kwitowski. Together, they are in charge of the school lunch program at DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit group that delivers meals to eight schools in Washington.

In the freight delivery area outside, a pallet with 500 pounds of carrots waits. They are the reason for this conversation. Carrots are great food, and the school lunch standards suggest putting them on the menu a lot. But the only way kids seem to like them is in the form of baby carrots with ranch dressing. After a while, serving them just one way gets boring.

"My goal would be to get something cooked that they like," says Nash.

Kwitowski ponders: "What are your thoughts about an herb-roasted kind of deal?"

"Yeah!" says Nash. "I could be down with that."

Nash and Kwitowski have this kind of conversation every month or so, each time about a different problematic vegetable. And the conversations lead to a kind of game with students. They take samples of this vegetable, prepared three different ways, into a school lunchroom. The kids get to vote for their favorite. The winner will show up later on the regular menu.

For this month's context, Nash and Kwitowski need two more options. "What if we did, like, a carrot mash?" says Nash. "You know how the mashed sweet potatoes go over really well?"

"Yeah!" says Kwitowski, and adds, with a grin, "I think we should use coriander."

Nash rolls her eyes. This is an inside joke between them. "Oh, yeah. Ed loves his coriander!"

For the third option, they settle on an Asian-style version, with soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, garlic and scallions.

I ask which one they expect to be most popular. "You know, the Asian one will be hard to beat," says Kwitowski. "Chinese take-out!"

Two days later, in DC Central Kitchen's "nutrition lab," Kwitowski is cooking up a rough version of each dish for the staff here to try.

This is where you see some of the difficulties involved in making a really great school lunch. When you're making thousands of meals at a time on a tight budget, you have to keep it simple.

"I've definitely scaled back the number of ingredients that go into each one," Kwitowski says. He once created meals in fine restaurants; he would have liked to add yogurt to the mashed carrots. That got nixed. And the herb-roasted dish will have garlic powder, not fresh garlic. That's too finicky to work with, "and plus, to chop all that or cut all that would be daunting. So we have to pick our battles," he says.

But when he takes these trial dishes up to the office for other staffers to taste, the reviews are positive. "Yep! It's good," says Nash.

I try them, too. They really are good.

The reviewers who matter, though, are the kids.

On Friday, the samples of cooked carrots are lined up on a table, ready for tasting. The children crowd around, cast their votes and loudly proclaim their preferences: "I like the last one!" "I liked all three!"

First-grader Walter Young ponders the Asian-style carrots with all the careful discernment of a food critic. "I like this," he says. "It's soft. And the middle, good. But the juice is very good. It makes it gooder."

"It might be better than carrots," says Carlos Coley. "Smooth, and easy to bite. You won't hear that crunch sound when you bite into them."

And Salem Tesfaye, the soft-spoken first-grader who told me she threw out her whole lunch? She voted for the herb-roasted version. "I like the seasoning," she declares.

She also tells me — and those big eyes seem very sincere about this — that if those herb-roasted carrots show up in the regular school lunch, she will eat them.

That is the point of this little contest. It's not just a matter of coming up with a good recipe. It's giving the children some control over their own lunch menu. Katie Nash, from DC Central Kitchen, says it really does work. When the winning recipes show up on lunch plates at Walker-Jones, the children remember: Oh, yeah, I voted for this! It was good!

And the vote? Asian-style carrots won in a landslide. They'll return to Walker-Jones, this time on the regular lunch menu, on Dec. 16.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And you can lead a kid to vegetables, but you can't make her eat.

INSKEEP: That reality leads us into the politically hot topic of school nutrition. Advocates say one way of preventing diabetes or obesity is through healthy school lunches including lots of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Others, including some lunch providers, say those government-imposed rules are not realistic because a lot of the healthy food goes in the trash. NPR's Dan Charles went to a kitchen that delivers thousands of school lunches every day and is trying to fix the problem.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: At Walker-Jones Educational Campus in the heart of Washington, D.C., the lunches really are nutritious. On this day, first-grader Salem Tesfaye got chicken in a whole-wheat wrap, chopped tomatoes and lettuce from local farms, a slice of cantaloupe and milk.

Did you through any of that out?

SALEM: I threw all of it away.

CHARLES: You threw all of it away?

You see the problem. But Salem Tesfaye did eat something today. She took part in a taste test here in the lunch room, a popularity contest between carrots cooked three different ways - herb-roasted, mashed and Asian-style.

CARLOS: I like the last one.

TYRONN: I like the last one.

TRINITY: I like all three of them. I got - I like all three of them.

NASIYA: I think I like all three of them. But now I like the last one. It was delicious.

CHARLES: Those are first- and second-graders Carlos Coley, Tyronn Taylor, Trinity Payne and Nasiya Anderson. This carrot contest came out of a conversation four days earlier in a small meeting room at the nonprofit organization that supplies the meals at Walker-Jones. It's called D.C. Central Kitchen.

KATIE NASH: My goal would be really to get something cooked that they like.

CHARLES: That's Katie Nash, a dietitian and program director here. She is talking about the carrot problem. The only way kids seem to like them is in the form of baby carrots with ranch dressing. But you can't just keep serving carrots that one way. So she's asking Ed Kwitowski for help. Kwitowski is a chef, and he's in charge of the school lunches that D.C. Central Kitchen makes.

ED KWITOWSKI: What are your thoughts about, like, a roasted herb kind of deal?

NASH: Yeah. Yeah, I could be down with that.

CHARLES: Nash and Kwitowski actually have this kind of conversation every month or so about problematic vegetables. Those conversations turn into those taste tests in schools. They always give the kids three different options.

NASH: Part of me wants to try - 'cause you know how the mashed sweet potatoes go over really well?

KWITOWSKI: Right.

NASH: What if we did, like, a carrot mash?

KWITOWSKI: I think we should use coriander.

NASH: Ed loves his coriander.

KWITOWSKI: Right. What do you think about coriander?

CHARLES: And finally they come up with an Asian-style version. It'll have soy sauce, sesame oil, ginger, garlic and scallions.

Which one's going to be popular?

KWITOWSKI: I think, you know, Chinese takeout. The Asian one will be hard to beat.

CHARLES: Two days later in the so-called nutrition lab at D.C. Central Kitchen, Kwitowski is cooking up a rough version of each dish for the staff here to try. This is where you see some of the difficulties involved in making a really great school lunch. When you're making thousands of meals at a time on a tight budget, you have to keep it simple.

KWITOWSKI: I've definitely scaled back the amount of ingredients that would go into each one.

CHARLES: Kwitowski once created meals in fine restaurants. He would've liked to add yogurt to the mashed carrots. That got nixed. And the herb-roasted dish will have garlic powder not fresh garlic. That's too finicky to work with.

KWITOWSKI: And plus to chop all that or to cut all that would be very daunting. So we have to kind of pick our battles in a way.

CHARLES: But when he takes these trial dishes up to the office for other staffers to taste, the reviews are positive.

NASH: Yeah. It's good.

CHARLES: I tried them, too. They really are good. But the reviewers who really matter are the kids.

So here we are back at Walker-Jones. First-grader Walter Young is pondering the Asian-style carrots.

WALTER: I like this. It's soft. And the middle - good. But the juice is very good. It makes it good.

CHARLES: And Carlos Coley agrees.

CARLOS: It might taste better than carrots.

CHARLES: Better than carrots?

CARLOS: Yes.

CHARLES: Wow.

CARLOS: Smooth and easy to bite. And you won't hear that crunch sound when you bite into one.

CHARLES: As for Salem Tesfaye, the soft-spoken first-grader who told me she threw out her whole lunch, she voted for the herb-roasted version.

SALEM: I like the seasoning.

CHARLES: She tells me - and those big eyes seem very sincere about this - if those herb-roasted carrots show up in a regular school lunch, she will eat them. And that is the point of this little contest. It's not just coming up with a good recipe. It's giving the children some control over their own lunch menu. Katie Nash from D.C. Central Kitchen says it works. When the winning recipes show up on lunch plates at Walker-Jones, Tyronn and Trinity and Carlos remember, oh, yeah, I voted for this. It was good. When lunch is over and Nash sits down to count the votes, Asian-style carrots won in a landslide.

NASH: So we're excited. That'll be a great way to put it on the menu.

CHARLES: And the Asian-style carrots will be on that regular lunch menu on the 16 of December. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.