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Ode to the lunch lady

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act proves effective in local Public Schools

Our public schools provide not just educational materials and instruction—they are also employed to provide an environment conducive for learning. One of the most basic and incontrovertible needs for educational success is nutrition. So the learning environment must include students being fed.

According to the Food Research and Action Center, the primary nutrition research and advisory organization to the U.S. Department of Agriculture: 

Students who participate in school breakfast programs have improved attendance, behavior, academic performance, and academic achievement, as well as decreased tardiness … providing students with breakfast in the classroom is associated with lower tardy rates, fewer disciplinary office referrals, improved attendance rates, and improved math and reading achievement test scores.

Oklahoma currently is ranked 47th in academic achievement nationally. Research from
feedingamerica.org shows that more than 24 percent of all children under the age of 18 in Tulsa County are food insecure. Food insecurity is defined by the USDA as “a social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.” As most public school students eat breakfast, lunch, and one to three snacks at school every day, school-supplied nutrition plays an important role in the success of these students.

In 2010, Congress approved the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA), which gave the USDA authority to set nutritional standards for core child nutrition programs, including the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. By 2013, some of the changes schools began implementing under the bill included providing meals with more whole grains, low-fat milk, lower sodium content, and increased vegetable and fruit options. It also expanded access to the National Free and Reduced Lunch Program.

All good parties begin and end in the kitchen

The improved nutritional requirements created big changes for many schools, but a policy shift does not necessarily change staff or students’ minds about food. That takes time, argues Mikael Harp, director of operations for child nutrition services at Tulsa Public Schools.

“It’s about the changing of a culture … showing the students what each ingredient does for them,” Harp said.

Beyond time, this culture shift requires intentional staff education, the opportunity to expose students to new foods in a positive environment, and the engagement of families. There are numerous food programs in Union and Tulsa Public Schools beyond the purview of the national requirements working to make that shift happen.

Lisa Griffin, director of child nutrition for Union Public Schools, has a relatively simple perspective.

“[We] get really good food, get a lot of student feedback, and try to keep food costs down without cutting quality … I spend a lot of my time deciding what we’re buying next year with commodity dollars.”

The larger districts like Union have purchasing power and are able to negotiate directly with producers. Griffin has created partnerships with several local producers, including Thunderbird Berry Farms and 918Beef. Union provides a fresh fruit and vegetable bar every day with such produce as local sweet potatoes, greens, broccoli, watermelon, and peaches. Griffin says the trick is in getting the kids involved in the process—making menu decisions, cooking, and helping with clean-up. In order to cut down on food waste, Union’s McAuliffe Elementary holds compost competitions in the cafeteria, which teach students how to separate compostable materials from waste. The program connects students to the food on their plate in a new way. Katie Plohocky, founder of and farmer at the Healthy Community Store Initiative, picks up the compost from McAuliffe for use on the farm. Students at Union High use food scraps from the production kitchen for their own compost.

Harp emphasizes the efforts TPS puts into their nutrition department while urging the community to advocate for public schools.

“We need to produce pride,” he said. “There’s so much negativity about teacher pay and everything … this is what your public schools are doing.”

After the HHFKA, the TPS district adopted a comprehensive wellness policy, an effort that was recognized by a grant from Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust that funded the installation of blender bikes in all TPS middle and high school cafeterias. Harp is also particularly proud of their seasonal tastings display, an extra spot in the cafeteria that highlights a new recipe or ingredient for students to try and learn about. Thanks to one of the six chefs on the nutrition education staff, the students have recently been learning about—and enjoying—the Vietnamese dish pho.


There are many public school employees working every day to help students connect the dots between what they eat and how it affects their lives. This is dependent upon individual employees’ willingness and ability to ensure that all the administrative policies trickle down to produce food that’s actually eaten by students. There are some obstacles, still, to achieving that goal.

Union is fortunate, for instance, to partner with Cooking for Kids, a culinary training program for students. But for food service employees in schools, adopting the 2010 guidelines proves difficult. Food workers at Central High didn’t offer much praise for HHFKA’s effects: “Since Michelle Obama changed things, the food just doesn’t have much taste”; “I make sure to give them hot sauce and ranch and things.” This is part of the cultural shift Harp mentioned, and while the goal is ultimately to educate students about their nutritional intake, encouraging staff is as pressing.

During each school visit—to Sequoyah Elementary, Central High, Deborah Brown Community School, and Rosa Parks Elementary—the subject of unpaid lunch balances came up. Often, if a student can’t pay a meal balance, the debt is carried to the next year. While seemingly insignificant, this affects both the students’ eating experience and the district’s bottom line.

Back to the basics

As gloomy as the outlook sometimes appears for local public education, the fact that our school lunch programs are funded on a national instead of a state level has actually helped Oklahoma schools continue to provide adequate meals regardless of budget crisis.

Back to what Harp said about producing pride and advocating for the schools—here is a sliver of public education that many of us, especially those who tout eating local and eating healthy, can get behind. Tulsans are into food culture. In midtown and downtown, it’s often impossible not to see someone you know when you’re out for brunch. (It’s also popular to talk about how many of our public schools are failing at primary educational goals.) We relish the attention to detail local chefs, servers, baristas, and bartenders pay to ensure our entertainment and edification. But we often have no idea what large swaths of our population, including our children, are eating—or what it takes just to get them fed.

While the focus is often on budget crises and teacher shortages, we might also consider the 180 days a year in which a quarter of our population eats all of their meals at school. Those meals might be one of the bright spots within the system, thanks to the public school employees dedicated to the safety, wellness, and growth of Tulsa’s children.