-Blog post by Reed Sandridge of Washington, DC.
One in three children in the U.S. is overweight or obese according to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Pressure is growing on strapped for cash school systems to provide healthier meals. D.C. Public Schools has implemented a salad bar system this year and asked for volunteers to help teach students how to make a healthy salad that complies with USDA requirements for school meals.
I signed up to help out at Ballou Senior High School. Named after former D.C. superintendent of schools Dr. Frank W. Ballou, the school is located southeast of the Anacostia River and has a student body of about 1,000, nearly all of them eligible for free and reduced lunch. I parked my car in the almost empty lot next to the football field and walked up the hill toward the school passing several parked police cars. A friendly smile greeted me as the front door opened and a uniformed security guard motioned toward an airport like security checkpoint. After collecting my camera and the contents of my pockets from the other side of the x-ray machine, the same woman explained to me how to get to the cafeteria.
I made my way across the empty dimly lit cafeteria and poked my head in the kitchen. A dozen school cafeteria employees, mostly women, were busy making last-minute preparations for the second day of the school year. I was directed to Mr. Sparrow, a thirty-year veteran of the food service industry. He explained the task at hand and I, along with another volunteer named Hale, got ready for the first wave of students.
“It aint going to be easy,” Mr. Sparrow told me. “You’ve got to make sure they have a balanced meal that includes vegetables, a protein, a fruit and a grain.” Sounds easy enough, right?
Although most students chose the standard school meal, probably about 60 or 70 lined up to make a salad. Freshly prepared that morning, the salad bar looked delicious. Although students could choose from fresh romaine, arugula and endive, most stuck with the standard romaine lettuce. Zucchini sticks weren’t very popular either, despite my sales pitch to the young people. Turkey ham, eggs, bacon bits and ranch dressing were the hot items.
“Sir,” called out Mr. Sparrow to an upperclassmen dressed in the standard blue shirt and beige pants, “I need you to take a piece of fruit with you.” The student pushed back some saying that he wasn’t going to eat it. In the end he reluctantly grabbed a shiny red delicious apple and went on his way. This type of scenario played out about half the time. Sometimes they were missing fruit, other times they had loaded up on just meat and almost nothing else. Stern yet compassionate, Sparrow and his team work with the students to get it right. I secretly wondered where they found the patience to do this every single day.
An altercation erupts in the cafeteria courtyard and the half-dozen police officers on hand in the cafeteria quickly defuse it. The experienced kitchen staff is unphased; just another day.
Overall it was a good experience. It had been a while since I had been in a school cafeteria. Although I applaud Ballou and DC Public Schools for taking on this initiative, I believe they will need additional help to make this work properly. Just keeping the salad bar looking presentable is a full-time job for one worker who was busy restocking and cleaning up spilled toppings. They need someone for the foreseeable future helping students build a healthy lunch. As students head back to school tomorrow, the volunteers won’t be there anymore and I am afraid Mr. Sparrow and his team will be stretched too thin.
Check out this video that DC Public Schools put together to help volunteers learn how to build salads that qualify under USDA guidelines as a school meal. I thought it was pretty good!
Here is a link to some other photographs that I took. I will have more uploaded later this week.