Going locavore 

Fayetteville's goal: to serve healthy food to students.

From Jamie Oliver's hit show, "Food Revolution," to the Obamas planting a kitchen garden at the White House, the way we eat has leapt into the national spotlight. The public schools in Fayetteville are paying attention: The Fayetteville School District has hired a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America to direct its child nutrition program.

Adam Simmons says he wants to bring "real change" to not just the types of foods served to Fayetteville's children, but how that food is prepared. He's promoting "old-school" cooking methods — cooking meals from scratch, as opposed to pre-packaged convenience foods — and increasing the amount of locally grown foods in school menus. Simmons is originally from Helena, but his grandparents owned and operated restaurants all over the state, so he "grew up cooking." He spent some time cooking in high-end restaurants in Aspen, where he served presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton. In addition to his new position, he teaches culinary classes and nutrition at Northwest Arkansas Community College.

"Our health as a nation is at a critical point; if we do not change the way we eat we are in store for some terrible health problems down the line," Simmons says. "If we do not instill good nutrition in our children, we are dooming them to an unhealthy life."

On that point, there is little debate. Childhood obesity rates have been soaring since the 1980s, and Arkansas currently ranks second in the nation.

First on Simmons' plate is to "beat the stigma" that school lunches have. On that topic, he has his work cut out for him. Recent scandals involving schools around the nation serving pet-food-quality meat, and even tainted meat, dominated headlines and prompted the USDA to tighten regulations earlier this year.

School lunches have always had a bad reputation. As Starr Austin, mother of an Asbell Elementary student, puts it, "I don't think they [school meals] are very healthy. There's way too much brown on the plate." She explains that there isn't one reason why she thinks the meals have "poor nutrition," but that it's the adding up of the little things: "Having the fresh veggies separate [from the serving tray], having candy for sale, using candy as a reward, not enough access to water — it all adds up."

She's not alone in her assessment. The U.S. Task Force on Childhood Obesity's report acknowledges that, "unfortunately, some key aspects of current school meals, other foods at school, and environmental factors are contributing to obesity and failing to support good nutrition ..." The report goes on to state that 93 to 94 percent of school meals failed to meet nutritional standards, mainly because they exceeded the limits for fat, saturated fat and calories. Another problem identified in the report was that schools offered few whole-grain foods, and French fries and other potato products accounted for too many of the vegetables on school lunch menus.

Ramay Junior High in Fayetteville student Annabelle Hall has mixed feelings about school meals. She says she "rarely" eats school lunch, and if she forgets her lunch at home, she simply doesn't eat because, she says, "I don't particularly care for the food, and they don't have a salad bar." Yet she does admit to liking some things she knows she shouldn't: "I like the ice cream, cookies, and some of the food, but it's very high in sodium, and although the taste is enjoyable, it doesn't taste real."

To get a taste of what he's doing now, I meet Simmons at Fayetteville's Owl Creek School, which teaches children from pre-K to seventh grade. It's breakfast time, the meal Austin described as "atrocious." The cafeteria's morning chaos is interrupted by a woman's voice over the loudspeaker, urging the students to use "voice number one." In the kitchen, they are serving scrambled egg burritos (made with real eggs, Simmons assures me) with individual bags of graham crackers; the students can choose either fruit (today it's fresh apples) or juice. Alternatively, students can choose a small package of cereal, such as corn flakes or puffed rice, with milk and fruit or juice. Simmons acknowledges that the cereal option isn't a good breakfast, but, as he says, "We'd rather offer them something [they'll eat] ... than have them choose nothing."


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