Focus on nutrition boosts grades, students’ health in Chicago and suburbs

The students at Total Child Preschool and Childcare Center in Evanston probably grimace at a few of the items found on their lunchtime plate.

Yet they try it nevertheless.

“We serve family-style meals, where everyone is given a little bit of everything,” explains Beth Ruppe, director of Total Child Preschool and Childcare Center. “It’s really important for students to try things numerous times. Just because they didn’t like something three months ago doesn’t mean they won’t like it now.”

As complicated as a child’s palate can often be, it’s imperative that a diverse combination of food is offered. While this task was once solely parents’ responsibility, more and more schools are realizing the importance of their own school meal programs.

“A typical lunch for our students includes raw green pepper strips, brown rice and baked chicken with cantaloupe cubes for snack,” says Heidi Dellibovi, co-director of Creative World Montessori School in La Grange. “Low glycemic carbohydrates such as brown rice or wheat bread give children steady energy throughout the day and helps avoid those dreaded meltdowns.”

But in a world where food allergies and food restrictions run rampant, the responsibility of providing students with a good and nutritious meal can be challenging.

“The parents are able to see the menu at the beginning of the week, so they know what their child is eating,” adds Dellibovi, who notes that favorite meals for her students include cheese quesadillas with salsa and tacos with black beans and cheese. “We monitor whether a food choice is not being eaten and alter it as needed and rotate the menu every three weeks, which keeps the menu fresh.”

Just last year, students at Saints Peter& Paul Catholic School in Naperville were introduced to a number of menu changes that better incorporate healthier food choices  into their day. Their weekly hot meals now include a main entrée, a vegetable and a fruit serving with a small dessert.

“Our main goal was to provide better quality food and healthier food choices, but also keep in mind that since we only offer it one day a week, we wanted it to be ‘fun’ food choices for them,” explains Teri Nawara, who chaired the new and improved hot lunch program alongside Christine Brouch. “We did several taste testings with a pilot group of students to test many variations of ‘healthy’ to find the right mix for the program.”

While offering nutritious options might begin the process, many schools often find themselves combating some of the bad habits their students learned at home. “Dessert does not have to be a cake or a cookie and a doughnut on the way to school is not the best of breakfasts,” says Ruppe, whose school uses the services of organic-based provider Gourmet Gorilla.

“We want to give our students a solid base of food while they are here at school, which is why we are devoted to proving quality food that meets all of the nutritional guidelines. When children eat better, they will function better during the rest of the day.”

Perhaps Morgan Park Academy has one of the unique programs in the area. The school regularly partners with nearby Country House restaurant to offer Morgan Park Academy students, faculty, and staff a varied, healthy, and nutritious diet on a daily basis. Making frequent use of produce grown right in Morgan Park Academy’s campus garden, Country House only offers high quality, freshly made food such as roasted chicken, pizza from scratch, and homemade salads and dressings. It omits the usual fatty, premade options.

Other schools are trying out many options.

Recently St. Stanislaus Kostka School partnered with nearby DePaul University for a community garden, with the hopes that it would eventually be able to support the school’s on-site meal program. On what was once a forgotten piece of concrete next to the school playground, four gardens were planted with a variety of vegetables for salads and impromptu snack times by the students. Principal Marjorie Hill said she hopes to increase the number of garden plots so that enough veggies could be grown for school lunches.

At Chicago Waldorf School, students eat their lunch from home or from the school’s organic lunch program with their teachers in the comfort of their own classroom. It doesn’t allow candy bars or soda in the meals.

“It’s a positive type of peer pressure. The Chicago Waldorf School tends to attract families who already have a high level of “nutritional intelligence.” The culture of the school and its emphasis on developing healthy life habits encourage kids to make appropriate food choices,” says Anderson, a parent and a developer of the new hot lunch program.

Part of Making the Grade, a special advertising education guide.

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