Bistro Kids: changing lunches one school at a time.

The following article appeared in the Kansas Food Journal.  It’s a really cool website written by students from K-State’s Food Writing Class. You can also view the article and other related food stories at: http://www.kansasfoodjournal.com/2011/05/04/bistro-kids-changing-lunches-one-school-at-a-time/

Bistro Kids: changing lunches one school at a time

May 4, 2011

By Kelly Leonard

KANSAS CITY – Under the guidelines of the National School Lunch Program Flamin’ Hot Cheetos qualify for inclusion in children’s school lunches, but locally sourced tofu, a product that has considerably more to offer nutritionally than the Cheetos, is not allowed on the children’s plates.

Since Kiersten Firquain started Bistro Kids, a farm-to-school lunch program located in Kansas City, she has come up against the counterintuitive rules and complex politics involved with school lunches of which most of the American public is unaware.

Firquain trained as a chef at a culinary school in Napa Valley, California, and holds a master’s degree in business. She established Bistro Kids four years ago when she witnessed first-hand the poor quality of lunches her son was given at school.

Known as a “farm to school” program, Bistro Kids partners with Good Natured Family Farms, an alliance of more than one hundred farmers that are located within a 200-mile radius of Kansas City, to provide locally sourced, antibiotic and hormone free milk and meat, and organic fruits and vegetables to schools located in Kansas and Missouri.

Firquain is on a mission to bring this healthful food to as many kids as possible; however, many conflicting interests are involved in school lunches, making change difficult.

Since the establishment of the National School Lunch Program in 1946, politics have been inextricably linked with the mission of providing meals to children.

As Quentin Burdick, a senator from North Dakota in the 1960s summed it up, “The entire nation gains from this program because it helps assure a strong, well-fed youth, a larger income for the farmer, a huge market for the food trades…constructive outlets for abundant commodities, a well-nourished student who is more receptive to instruction and a healthier nation.”

The program wasn’t just established to provide nutritious meals to students; it also was a way for the agriculture industry to distribute surplus commodities such as meat, dairy, and processed foods which often resulted in a limited and inconsistent choice of foods for the schools.

From 1946 to 1972, children who paid to participate in the National School Lunch Program were served a hot lunch with the major food groups; however, the composition of the meals drastically changed when the concept of free and reduced price lunches was introduced in order to subsidize poor children’s lunches.  With less paying children and not enough assistance from the federal government, local school districts had a shortfall in their lunchroom budgets.  As a result, they turned to the private food industry to help cover the shortfall. At the same time, the United States Department of Agriculture lowered the school lunch standards, famously allowing ketchup to be considered as a vegetable.  Privatization, fast-food, and the introduction of national brands altered the composition of school lunches and might explain the presence of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos on a school lunch tray.

Fast forward to 2011 and one in three children are overweight or obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  Parents and schools are searching for solutions to reverse that alarming trend.

Firquain founded Bistro Kids to hopefully become one of those solutions.

The program provides, as Firquain puts it, “healthy takes on kid-friendly favorites” such as Macaroni and Cheese and Bison Sloppy Joes.  Each school has its own chef that tailors the menu to fit the students’ taste preferences.  Not only that, but Bistro Kids also provides hands on cooking classes, nutrition education in the classroom, field trips to the farms it partners with, and a school garden.

A day at the Oakhill Day School in Gladstone, Missouri provides an example of the Bistro Kids’ experience.  Lunch on “Fun Fridays” consists of a salad bar with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.  The menu also includes baked Parmesan chicken, and the kids swear that it is better than any they have tasted in Italian restaurants.

During a nutrition education class given by Chef Mark Zukaitis, Jr., third graders gobble up “beet sticks” and help make a bulgur wheat salad with beet leaves, spinach, fennel and peppers.  One third grader proclaims, “Spinach is one of my favorites!”

Responses from the parents, the kids, and the teachers at the schools Firquain services have been overwhelmingly positive; however, she has faced some challenges in getting the program into more schools. Her meals cost twice the federal reimbursement which is currently around $2.89.  Although many of the schools that participate in Bistro Kids make up that shortfall with grants, that cost would be prohibitive for most public schools.

Also, Firquain feels that changes need to come from the top down in school districts instead of grassroots efforts.  Firquain faced this with her own son’s parochial school, the source of inspiration that sparked the development of Bistro Kids.  Even with broad parental support, she was unable to get the school to participate in her program due to resistance from the administration.

She has also faced issues with the National School Lunch Program standards, of which she must meet in order to service schools with over 60 percent of students receiving free and reduced price lunches.  Her voice filled with frustration describing clashes with a state administrator over allowing veggie burgers and the aforementioned tofu to be served.

She currently has the capabilities to add one to two new schools a year but plans on partnering with a large company that will allow her to expand even more rapidly.

Firquain faces an uphill battle to change the landscape of American school food.  Industries, such as the food service and agriculture industry, with powerful resources and interests other than providing the healthiest meal for children have been involved in the National School Lunch Program since the beginning and won’t give up their lucrative toehold easily.

But Firquain feels she’s up to the challenge of meeting her mission “to feed as many kids as possible healthy, organic meals.”

For more information about the program, visit www.bistrokids.com.

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