School lunch undergoes a revolution in Heber City
Heber City • Melissa Milam stands before a saute pan, piles of whole wheat tortillas, shredded raw milk cheese, green onions and refried black beans at the ready.
She's not only making quesadillas, but, in her own way, the mother of four is cooking up a revolution.
As the founder of Heber Valley Food Revolution, she's come to Real Foods Market on a recent day to give parents ideas on healthy food to pack in their children's school lunches.
Kids happily line up to try chicken pasta salad dressed in apple cider vinegar, honey and olive oil and tamari-flavored brown rice crackers, roasted edamame and baked vegetable slices.
"It takes like a minute to cook it and you can stick it in their lunch box," she says while preparing the ingredients. "Pair it with some veggies and you're good to go."
Food revolution • Food Revolution was started by British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who is working to combat childhood obesity by improving food education and school food. Members of the Heber Valley chapter decided that educating and exposing students in the Wasatch County School District to whole foods instead of processed is the way to improve school lunch.
They've planted a school garden at Midway Elementary, placed healthy vending machines sans soda or candy bars at Wasatch High School and have helped overhaul recipes used in cooking classes at Rocky Mountain Middle School.
Similar steps are being taken around the state, with more Utah school districts returning to cooking lunch from scratch, seeking local produce and combining purchasing power to buy higher quality foods. For example, Wasatch worked with 14 other districts to buy whole breast chicken strips that have less fat than the dark meat from legs and thighs.
It's about baby steps, said Leslie Smoot, one of Heber Valley's board members. "The key is having parents understand what is offered and how we can upgrade it in a very simple way. Then it doesn't overwhelm people."
Adding produce • Due to tight budgets, there's no way lunchroom employees can serve all organic, local, seasonal foods, as some would like. And federal regulations dictate what must be served in the cafeteria, with new rules enacted last year to ensure there are more grains, vegetables and fruits.
But they don't do any good if children throw it away, said Darren Wilkins, food service supervisor of the school district, who heard complaints of children not feeling full last year.
"They're used to eating at McDonald's and getting a 1,500 calorie meal. That's not good for you. Three-fourths of our plate is meant to be fruits and vegetables. If they're not eating their fruits and vegetables, they're probably not getting full."
That's why he appreciates Food Revolution's efforts to make fruits and vegetables more appealing.
Started in October 2011, the group hosts a book club for parents, reading works such as "Licking Sweet Death," about ending addiction to junk food; and "Food Politics," about food industry marketing. A cookbook from the bi-monthly community potlucks also is available for purchase that features from-scratch recipes that call for using produce that's organic, local and chemical free.
Last year, they helped with a research project at Midway Elementary to track how much fruits and vegetables students dumped in the garbage each day. The kids were willing to eat them when they earned tokens, but eventually went back to throwing them away when the reward was gone.
"We can't bribe them into eating better," Milam learned.
That's why volunteers visited classrooms last year and will continue this year linking fruits and vegetables to specific health benefits. For example, Milam said they cut up a carrot to show how the center looks like the pupil in your eye, linking the Vitamin A found in the root vegetable to improved eyesight. And they've found a local chef who is helping to make side dishes more appealing.
Subtracting sugar • The group also is trying to reduce sugary rewards but still keep the fun at school parties. Last year, a volunteer dressed as a witch and made a brew of juiced vegetables over dry ice.
Revolution board member Molly Wilson recalls her son receiving a doughnut, s'more and cupcake in one day last year. She'll try to trade her children their junk food with homemade treats. But she'd rather see the schools move to non-food rewards, along with "real" food in the cafeteria minus nitrates, corn syrups and white flour.
"The ultimate ideal is to â¦ have things made from scratch grilled chicken breast, fresh veggies, not dehydrated potato flakes," she said.
Tara Stafford started a school garden for second-graders at Midway Elementary last year, with some funds from Food Revolution. In the fall, classes helped construct and fill the raised garden beds. In the spring, they planted tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, kale, swiss chard and peas.
She knows she can change stubborn minds when the food is fresh off the vine. "Moms were calling me saying, 'My kids are telling me to buy kale,'" Stafford said.
Her goal: "To open them up to new produce, new experiences and hopefully change their minds about healthy eating."
Gloria Lloyd sought Food Revolution's help to overhaul the recipes she uses in the family and consumer portion of the mandatory Career Technology Education class at Rocky Mountain Middle. While the sugary, processed foods are popular with the 7th grade students and less expensive to buy, Lloyd wanted to find ways to incorporate fresh foods without sacrificing taste.
Food Revolution plans to help buy or seek contributions to make gluten-free brownies made with black beans and coconut oil, to replace an orange Julius-type drink with a green smoothie made with spinach, apples, bananas and some honey and a frittatta to replace a ramen noodle stir fry.
"I'm not sure they're going to love it," she said. But she'll keep experimenting. "I'm going to keep on trying with that goal in mind of less processed, more fruits and vegetables, more fiber."
Some of the children who attended Milam's cooking demonstration at the Real Food Market already knew the importance of healthy foods. When asked what his favorite foods are, Kaleb Schaffer, who will be a third-grader at a Midway charter school, freely mentioned roasted cauliflower.
"Most unhealthy food has dyes and stuff in it. We eat them only once in a while. We never go to McDonald's," he said. "All the food there is fake."
Black bean brownies
2 1/2 tablespoons of flaxseed meal
6 tablespoons of water
1 (15 ounce) can black beans, well rinsed and drained
3 tablespoons coconut oil, melted
3/4 cup cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Heaping 1/2 cup raw sugar, slightly ground or pulsed in a food processor or coffee grinder for refined texture
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
Crushed walnuts, pecans or semisweet chocolate chips, optional
Heat oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 12-slot standard size muffin pan.
Prepare a "flax egg" by combining flaxseed and water in the bowl of the food processor. Pulse a couple times and then let rest for a few minutes.
Add beans, coconut oil, cocoa powder, salt, vanilla, sugar and baking powder and puree about 3 minutes until smooth, scraping down sides as needed.
If the batter appears too thick, add a tablespoon or two of water and pulse again. It should be slightly less thick than chocolate frosting but nowhere close to runny.
Evenly distribute the batter into the muffin tin and smooth the tops with a spoon or your finger.
Optional: Sprinkle with crushed walnuts, pecans or chocolate chips.
Bake for 20-26 minutes or until the tops are dry and the edges start to pull away from the sides.
Remove from oven and let cool for 30 minutes before removing from pan. They will be tender, so remove gently with a fork. The insides are meant to be very fudgy, so don't be concerned if they seem too moist - that's the point. Store in an airtight container for up to a few days. Refrigerate to keep longer.
Serves • 1 dozen
Source: Heber Valley Food Revolution
Kid-friendly green smoothie
1 generous handful of spinach
1 banana, broken into pieces
Frozen berries, peaches, mango and/or cherries to taste
Milk, coconut milk, coconut water or almond milk
1 tablespoon chia seeds, optional
1 scoop whey protein, Kieffer or yogurt, optional
1 scoop coconut ice-cream, optional
Combine all ingredients and blend, adding more liquid to create desired consistency.
Servings • 1