By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

Though school cafeteria cleanliness is an issue that New Orleans school leaders work to address daily, they’ve got another pressing matter on their minds: what’s actually going on the plate.

Many school officials say they want to provide students with fresh, healthful meals, but they say it’s a struggle to find the money that will let them move beyond mostly processed breakfasts and lunches.

One charter organization is proving that a wad of cash isn’t necessary to make that happen. FirstLine Schools, in cooperation with its partners at Edible Schoolyard, has successfully lobbied its food-service provider, Sodexo, to provide healthier meals and stay within budget.

The keys, said those involved, are a steadfast commitment to the effort, educating students and making smart purchases.

The results appear generally promising, though – predictably – some middle-schoolers aren’t thrilled that their pizzas are now on whole-wheat dough and topped with broccoli and carrots.

Other changes include offering jam on morning pancakes instead of syrup, making salad bars available at lunch, eliminating red meat and encouraging the use of locally produced foods.

FirstLine schools served through this effort are S. J. Green Charter School, Arthur Ashe Charter School, Langston Hughes Academy, John Dibert Community School, and Joseph S. Clark High School.

Because these schools serve a large percentage of students who qualify for free lunches, the charter group gets extra federal money to buy food, as well as access to free commodities offered by the government. Making nutritious food involves making good choices, said April Neujean, chef teacher for Edible Schoolyard, who works with FirstLine to guide its cafeteria offerings.

“You can purchase highly processed food, or you can purchase brown rice,” she said.

Her partner in this effort is Chris Van Vliet, the lead chef and director of food services at FirstLine. He said they simply had to make a request to start moving in the right direction.

“It was an easy in,” said Vliet. “We asked Sodexo for at least two vegetables every day.”

Students tend to this garden at Langston Hughes Academy, learning about healthful eating habits. Photo by Jessica Williams

Neujean and Vliet say they’ve been one of Sodexo’s first clients to push for healthier, local food options that exceed federal requirements. For instance, FirstLine serves only hot breakfasts at its schools, even though cold cereal and milk is enough to satisfy the government. In those hot breakfasts, condiments full of high-fructose corn syrup, like sticky-sweet pancake syrup, are banned. Students instead are encouraged to eat fruit, powdered sugar or jam with their hotcakes. Their hot lunches come complete with a salad bar, and students have the opportunity of choosing fresh, Louisiana-grown satsumas, fresh plums, raisins and other fruits as sides to the lunch menu.

None of FirstLine’s schools serves red meat; the ground meat in the shepherd’s pie, for instance, is turkey-based. Their whole-wheat pizzas feature red onions, olives, corn and broccoli instead of pepperoni and sausage. In addition to a healthful breakfast and lunch, students also get fresh fruit as an afternoon snack.

It’s an abrupt switch from the meals students at Langston Hughes Academy were getting before the FirstLine network began co-managing the school with former operator NOLA 180 in 2010.

“We used to have Domino’s, and hot dogs, chicken nuggets, nachos,” seventh-grader Jarlai Morris said.

Hughes and classmate Chasitti White said that they like the salad offerings, and gumbo days are one of their favorites. But they do long for the days when pizza day meant they’d be getting the starchy, cheesy variety.

“The pizza, they need to stop putting broccoli and carrots and stuff in it,” Morris said.

White nodded her head for emphasis: “It’s nasty.”

For middle-schoolers such as Morris and White, food education is crucial, Neujean said.

“You can’t just change out food,” she said. “You have to provide educational content. You have to provide an experience.”

The classes that Neujean teaches attempt to do just that. The students learn about herbs and plant parts and then locate them in the gardens that are on the campuses of four of the five FirstLine schools. They learn the difference between monoculture and polyculture farming. They examine school lunches to learn how far the food has traveled before it’s hit the plate.

This type of immersion into healthful food piques the interest of the students, who are then encouraged to eat healthier. In addition to the classes, FirstLine hosts family food nights, letting parents and students sample foods and learn how to create healthier food options. Elementary school kids at Dibert, which hosted a family food night in November, were more enthusiastic than the seventh-graders at Hughes.

“Before I came here, I used to not like carrots that much, but now that I know they help your eyes, I like them,” fourth-grader Kenneth Martin said.

Second-grader Jordan Trufant said he enjoys eating vegetables. The healthy pizza FirstLine serves every Friday is his favorite dish.

“It gets you stronger,” he said.

It also doesn’t hurt that the students themselves are growing the fruits and vegetables that they’re sampling – a bonus for kids used to getting their produce only from the supermarket.

It’s worth noting though, that FirstLine uses its garden produce only for educational purposes. Sodexo provides all cafeteria food.

The produce in the large gardens at Hughes and Green either go into the teaching kitchen at Green or serve as classroom examples.

Green has the network’s only teaching kitchen and its biggest garden. The garden at Clark is small, and mostly used for aesthetic purposes, and when Arthur Ashe moves to its new Gentilly campus next school year, a new garden will be created.

While gardens and food-education efforts by Edible Schoolyards are largely financed by grants and donations –  most notably from the Emeril Lagasse Foundation –  Neujean said any school can make healthful changes now. Those include switching from white to brown rice and asking their food-service providers for as many local options as possible.

And some changes won’t be optional for much longer. New federal requirements that kick in next school year will require schools to offer fruit every day at lunch and vegetables at least once a week. Half of the grains served at lunch must be rich in whole-grain, and new calorie limits will be in place.

For the 2013-2014 year, most of the new lunch requirements will apply to school breakfasts, and for the following year and on until 2023, sodium limits will decrease.

Additionally, Revolution Foods, a food-service provider that emphasizes organic and all-natural food options, recently announced a move to the New Orleans area. The organization will compete with the in-house Orleans Parish School Board provider as well as Sodexo, Chartwells, and the Recovery School District’s provider, ARAMARK.

But until those changes happen, making small steps are not as hard as some make it out to be – and healthier food choices can be economical, Neujean said.

“Despite what some advertisements would lead us to believe,” she said, “simple food, made from scratch, using ingredients in season is the most affordable way to eat.”

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...