In many ways, Kent-Meridian High School’s cafeteria is your typical American lunchroom — sound of teenage chatter, trays bumping against one another, and the smell of French fries wafting throughout the halls.
Except that lately fried foods have stopped flying onto students trays.
The longest lines are for … salad.
This is a benefit of the Kent School District’s decision to treat students more like restaurant customers. As a result, kids are driving the increased demand for healthful foods.
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Investments to get to this point are important not just for the students’ ability to focus in school, but for the greater community’s well-being. Kent is an economically and ethnically diverse community. About 70 percent of Kent-Meridian High School students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Public-health experts warn that children from poor households, particularly in South Seattle and South King County, are more likely to suffer from diabetes and obesity-related illnesses. For many, school might be the only place where they can access a decent, unprocessed meal.
The good news is intervention works.
Small, low-cost changes give students a chance to develop healthy habits before adulthood.
As a recent visit to Kent-Meridian’s lunchroom shows, it’s not every day you see hungry kids choose leafy greens over cheesy pizza. That’s a hopeful sign that students are now more conscious about what they consume.
Senior Tee Do, 18, said that until the school’s salad station opened earlier this month, she would either go off-campus to one of the many nearby fast-food restaurants — or skip lunch altogether.
“I don’t like school food. It’s not good. It’s greasy,” she says.
Prepackaged salads are still delivered once a week from the district’s central kitchen. But now students can fill out forms and watch cafeteria staff assemble their lunches from scratch.
Kent School District Food Services Supervisor Tom Ogg says within a week of opening, demand for the salad station doubled expectations.
“The students are so used to seeing the food courts at malls and airports,” he said. “There’s that element of seeing what’s being made for you and selecting what you want that is important.”
Clever ideas to modify food presentation and treat students more like consumers came from Cornell University’s Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs. Researchers there have found that incremental changes in lunchroom design can nudge kids to make better choices.
To increase consumption of more nutritious snacks, for instance, Kent-Meridian now displays fruits in bright red bowls near registers. Vegetables are placed at the beginning of the lunch line. Cartons of chocolate milk go behind reduced-fat milk.
Making healthful eating cool is also vital. Administrators conducted focus groups with students, then tapped their peers to produce a marketing video about the salad station that has aired throughout campus.
The district’s commitment to transformation didn’t happen quickly.
In 2010, Kent was one of several districts in the region to receive a two-year federal grant to combat obesity. Schools used that money to improve lunch menus and offer more physical activities. By 2012, obesity rates dropped in those federally supported schools, while statewide statistics remained unchanged.
To build on this progress, Kent, Highline and South Seattle schools have sensibly entered into partnerships with Public Health-Seattle & King County, and Seattle Children’s Hospital.
Ogg says it takes resources and staff to run a salad-savvy lunchroom, but he’s determined to sustain and expand the new lunch program to other schools.
At Kent-Meridian, more students are starting to notice the difference.
Senior Donovan Pangelinan, 17, usually eats pizza but recently switched to the salad station. He says the bigger portion size is a plus. “When I’m full, I can work better. I learn things better,” he said.
Every student should feel that way.