Out went French fries and pizza. In went ground turkey,
antibiotic-free chicken and fresh fruits and vegetables. Students
refused to eat. It was a rebellion.
It was 2009 when major changes to Chicago Public Schools' lunch
menu went into effect. That year there was a 20 percent drop in
"Even though they now had other options, they chose not to eat.
They'd bring chips or Mountain Dew from the corner store and they
would just choose not to take a meal if they didn't find something
appealing," says Leslie Fowler, executive director of nutrition
support services for Chicago Public Schools.
Fast-forward three years and students once again are buying
school lunch. Numbers steadily rose to pre-2009 levels.
It's a matter of education, getting parents involved and making
students part of the decision-making, Fowler says.
Chicago Public Schools may be one of the most progressive
inner-city schools in terms of revamping school food. About 10
years ago, the school system partnered with Healthy Schools
Campaign to improve school food. "If you look nationwide, they are
some of the best standards around," says Rochelle Davis, president
and CEO of Healthy Foods Campaign.
Two-thirds of Chicago Public Schools buy produce and
antibiotic-free chicken from local farms within a 50-mile radius of
Chicago. Forty schools grow fruits and vegetables in gardens on
"We are definitely doing a lot right now," Fowler says. "Chicago
is at the forefront of the battle with obesity, as well as trying
to put a balance in place. I've been impressed with the district's
willingness to step up to the plate and put kids first."
- Kristy MacKaben
Lindsey Shifley flew into a frenzy. She frantically tore through
her cabinets, pantry and refrigerator.
"Everything must go," she remembers mumbling to herself, as she
threw away animal crackers, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, cereal-all
of her family's favorites.
The Mundelein mom of three was on a mission.
The Shifleys' 6-year-old daughter Abbie was having trouble in
school, reading below grade level and
showing signs of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Set off by an email from Abbie's first-grade teacher claiming
"Abbie just doesn't care," Shifley went into action.
"Reality hit me in the face hard. I had a crazy urge to do
something, anything to avoid that decision (about medication) and a
food change seemed like the best place to start," she says.
Then came the purge.
Within hours, the Shifleys transformed their diet from nuggets
and pizza to a whole foods diet free of processed foods and
artificial preservatives. Gluten and dairy eventually became
off-limits. This meant changing where Shifley shopped for
groceries, cooking from scratch, rarely eating at restaurants and
not getting school lunches.
Her kids whined. Her husband, Chris, thought she was crazy. And
Shifley missed the ease of life with Uncrustables, chips and juice
By day 9, though, Abbie was showing vast improvement-reading on
her own and enjoying it. She was paying attention in class and
having less frequent meltdowns.
Shifley documented her story, which began last September, in a
blog (themullies.blogspot.com), became a food ambassador for
English chef Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution and hosted a
community-wide Food Revolution picnic to spread the word about
"We've managed to gather a little army of ambassadors, which
gets bigger every year," says Oliver, who founded a charity and
hosted a television series to educate people about healthier
eating. "It's simply a way of connecting people throughout the
world who care and want to make a difference."
By becoming a food ambassador, Shifley launched a crusade to
change food in her district.
"The realization that Abbie could not eat the school food
anymore is how I stumbled upon Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution
website in the first place," Shifley says. "I realized the
potential for more Abbies out there who would benefit."
There are plenty of other "Abbies."
Increasingly more parents are thwarting medications and altering
their children's diets in hopes of changing behavior and school
Recent studies have shown these parents might be on to
something. A meta-analysis of 34 studies that appeared in the
Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in
2012 found that restricting processed foods with artificial colors
and preservatives improved ADHD symptoms in some cases.
"We found that restriction diets did seem to provide a benefit,
although the effect was smaller than that achieved by medication,"
says Joel Nigg, co-author of the study and professor of psychiatry
at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. "I think it
re-opens the importance of conducting research on the role of diet
and nutrition in children's behavioral development."
While most pediatricians and nutritionists will not definitively
link food to behavior, experts agree that whole foods are best.
"There is evidence linking children's behavior and development
to nutrient intake, but this is a hard thing to quantify," says Dr.
Deborah Gulson, pediatrician with PediaTrust Lakeshore Pediatrics
Dr. Bridget Boyd, assistant professor of pediatrics at Loyola
Medical Center in Chicago, believes eating less processed food is
"Kids can have sugar highs and sugar lows. When you have a sugar
high, you can have a lot of energy. Then there's a drop," Boyd
says. "Eating a lot of processed food can lead to lots of highs and
lows and end up with kids feeling overly tired. It's always better
to make a change to help children function better."
The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests children eat three
to five servings of fruit, three to five servings of vegetables,
whole grains, fish and other lean proteins. Limiting fat, sugar and
processed foods is suggested.
Not every parent has the time, money or desire to make sweeping
food changes like Shifley. But even small changes help.
Soda and sweet drinks should not be consumed regularly, Gulson
says, and snacks can consist of fruits and vegetables, instead of
chips or pretzels.
School lunches also play a pivotal role in the health of
At the beginning of the 2012/2013 school year, the U.S.
Department of Agriculture required all schools participating in the
National School Lunch Program to offer fruits and vegetables daily,
increase whole grain foods, offer fat-free and low-fat milk and
reduce calories, saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.
"The new meal requirements mark the first major changes in
school meals in more than a decade and will help raise a healthier
generation of kids," says USDA undersecretary Kevin Concannon.
Still, each district differs greatly on what it serves. With her
push, Diamond Lake School District resurrected its Wellness
Committee to revamp its school food. Shifley wants more.
"My ideal school lunch menu would not include any artificial
colors, preservatives, additives or artificial sweeteners. No fake
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