June 10, 2010
All text and photos by Jen Cowart
A BIG THUMBS UP: Fifth grade teacher Jim Gemma and his class enjoy the “liberated lunch” meal that they planned together after months of research on better school nutrition for Project Citizen 2010.
The fifth graders in James Gemma’s class at Rhodes Elementary School had important business with Capitol Hill recently. As participants in the Civic Center for Education’s Project Citizen program, they were taking government into their own hands.
When the time came to tackle an issue that was important to them – lunch was on the menu.
“We’ve been trying to change the lunches to make them healthier, because if they give us low-grade food, we won’t be able to work to our fullest potential,” said student Sean Miller.
The students spent the past several months researching the standards for school lunches, as well as the recent legislation that’s been proposed to raise those standards.
“We don’t believe our school lunches meet the standards,” said Sabra Solitro. “We’d also like to try to make them more appetizing because if kids don’t eat them, we’re losing money.”
Classmate Sam Hanley agreed, and described how the class has been trying contact people who might be able to help them out, including CPS food services director Mike Morrocco, School Committee Member Steve Stycos, the organization Kids First, and even Senator Jack Reed.
They also contacted several other food service groups such as Sodexo and Fresh Point. Stycos and Kids First have been working with the district to bring in more fresh fruits and vegetables that are locally grown.
The students invited Senator Reed to visit their classroom and speak to them about their concerns.
Joining them that day was Theresa Manera’s fifth grade class, which was also participating in Project Citizen. Their chosen issue was the lack of appropriate physical education time during the school day, which tied in nicely with the nutrition topic from Gemma’s class.
Reed spent a half hour with the students, shaking every child’s hand and congratulating them on their interest in the upcoming lunch reform legislation. He praised Gemma and Principal Kenneth Blackman as well.
“School nutrition is a very important issue,” said Reed. “In the 1950’s and 60’s, they came up with the idea of a ‘hot lunch.’ Cooks prepared a meal, and you went in and ate it.”
Reed went on to say how over the course of time, school lunches have evolved into what Cranston Public Schools currently serve.
“We’ve already done things like cutting out most of the blatant sugar items like soda, but we’re trying to increase the nutrition guidelines,” said Reed, citing other changes such as taking sugary snacks out of school vending machines.
He briefly discussed why the guidelines are being changed. Reasons like childhood obesity and lack of good diet and exercise were top on the list.
“Over the next several weeks we will be having hearings and pass legislation,” he said.
Reed saved ample time for the students in both classes to ask their questions, taking out a pen and index cards to write down those he didn’t have answers to, or issues he specifically wanted to raise when he went back to Washington DC.
“Why is our fruit served in a light syrup?” asked Solitro.
Reed answered her honestly.
“That’s an improvement over the previous years,” he said. “It used to be served in heavy syrup.”
Solitro asked if cost was a factor, whether or not light syrup on fruit was cheaper to buy than fresh fruits. Reed answered that cost was part of the issue, but that by putting fruits in light syrup, it allowed the Department of Agriculture to use the excess foods, such as fruits, that they’re paying the farmers to grow for the school lunches.
Tying in nutrition with exercise, Amani Correia asked Reed whether or not cutting down physical education time in the schools was against the law, citing research that her class had done.
We put in higher standards for academics and there’s only so much time in a day,” said Reed. “Some things were cut but this might be an unintended consequence of this. Nutrition and exercise are important and we’re making the laws better in order to include them.”
Hanley brought up the idea that if the school lunches were more appetizing, more students would buy them, and asked Senator Reed what he thought about that.
That’s a good point Sam,” Reed answered. “We found that more and more children weren’t taking the meals. There’s a question now, if we made the meals more attractive, would more people buy it?”
The students in Gemma’s class decided to find out for themselves. As a culminating activity to their project, they worked in conjunction with Morrocco and Kids First to “liberate lunch,” and plan a healthier, more appetizing meal for the entire school to enjoy.
On Thursday, June 3, the student body and staff at Rhodes got to sample the fruits of their labor. On the menu was chicken stir-fry tossed with vegetables, locally grown corn on the cob, whole grain brown rice, fresh fruit salad and fresh red grapes.
“This is a great start towards healthier school lunches,” said Kids First representative Heidi Carla. “The kids are showing an interest and advocating for the whole school.”
Gemma stood in the kitchen with Carla as the line grew, and commented on the number of teachers in the lunch line.
“The teachers are actually eating the lunch,” he said as he grabbed a tray for himself and got into line.
When asked how the lunch rated compared to the regular school lunches, the results were overwhelmingly positive.
“This has never happened to me before,” said James Wesley Isom, a fourth grader at Rhodes.
“It’s great. On a scale of one to 20, it’s 1,000,” he added, holding up his fork.
One of Gemma’s students, Annabelle Neville, said she spoke to the lunch servers as she went through the line.
"I asked them if it was more work, one of them said no, and one of them said yes, but that it was worth it,” Neville said.
Gemma brought his tray over to the lunch table and sat down with his students, surveying the room. As staff and students lined up to purchase their lunches, they called out their thank you’s to Gemma and his students for planning such a fabulous lunch.
“Don’t thank me, thank the whole fifth grade class,” Gemma said.