What’s In Your Lunchbox

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How do we combat obesity, childhood hunger and get kids to eat nutritious meals? The answer may be found on the lunch line. Photos by Jason B. James.  

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Just before the lunch bell rings on a sunny spring morning, I arrive at Esther F. Garrison School of Visual and Performing Arts.  I sit quietly at a long, paint-splattered table—and all of the insecurities and awkwardness I felt at that age rekindle.  Within minutes, though, 12 or so fourth graders have me at ease—and in awe.  They’ve come to school me, so to speak, on lunchbox politics.

“What is your favorite—and least favorite—food to eat at lunch?”  I casually question, but the responses are anything but reserved as the colored pencils hit the table and shouting interruptions abound.


“Mac ’n’ cheese! We love mac ‘n’ cheese!”

“I love peanut butter!”

“Ewww!  Nah, it’s all about chicken fingers.”

“I have to have cookies,” pipes a bookish girl in hightops.

I can’t help but agree with her.  Even as a grownup, my sweet tooth still refuses to wane.

“Well, what do you hate?  What would you rather just die than eat?” I prod them over the din of argument.

“Brussels sprouts!”



“I just don’t like vegetables.”

That gets me thinking.

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Hungry, Hungry Tummies

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 18 percent of kids ages 6 to 11 and 21 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds are obese.  In Savannah, 1 in 3 children are considered obese—that’s 15 percent above the national average.  Compare that to this crushing fact from Feeding America: as of 2013, nearly 16 million children in the U.S. live in food insecure households.  In Coastal Georgia alone, 64 percent of children are food insecure and 66 percent of Savannah-Chatham County students are on free or reduced-price lunch.

To clarify, obesity doesn’t preclude hunger or imply sufficient nourishment—and hunger is only one form of food insecurity.  According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition, consistent access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources at times during the year.  Insecurity means a lack of access not just to food, but to healthy and enriching food, rather than the quick fix readily found at a convenience store or in a fast-food line.

Our city is full of hungry tummies, growling for more than empty calories.  When I spoke with the students at Garrison, I noticed that the students who brought their lunch to school were more likely to participate in grocery shopping or cooking at home.  The ones on the reduced-price lunch program showed little interest or experience with grocery shopping or cooking.

School lunch is just part of a bigger picture encompassing the health and wellbeing of our nation and our individual local communities.  If we want to instill healthy, balanced and socially aware attitudes about food and agriculture, we have to support and enable an integrated approach to feeding in schools

With the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) in effect since 2010, things are beginning to fall into place and change in school cafeterias—though slowly and not without pushback.  The act seeks to improve child nutrition, allowing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to implement reforms to school breakfast and lunch programs for the first time in more than 30 years.  The HHFKA mandates that, for schools to be reimbursed for their meals, every student must have either a fruit or a vegetable on every tray.

And that’s not all.  Within the USDA, the Farm to School Program promotes and increases access to local foods within schools.  The state of Georgia piggybacks on that effort with the Feed My School for a Week initiative, which requires school lunches to be made from of 75 to 100 percent of Georgia Grown food for an entire week.  The goal is “bridging a gap” between Georgia farmers, distribution chains and the school children.

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Steady Progress

“There has to be a relationship between the classroom, the community and the cafeteria,” says Rhonda Barlow, the school nutrition program coordinator and Savannah-Chatham County Farm-to-School Program Liaison.  “I think of it as a holistic education in that kids need to learn skills outside of the reading, writing and arithmetic.  They need to learn where the food comes from and how to use their hands.”

As Barlow and I walk through the lunch line at Beach High School, we examine the choices available and compare them to what students are actually picking up and eating.

“The hope is that the lessons transfer back to the home,” Barlow explains, “But, regardless of whether we make kids choose a fruit or a vegetable,  a lot of them don’t get it.”  Some even throw out the produce.

We watch students go through the lunch line, grab an apple because they have to, then toss it into the trash.  Perhaps they take a bite or two.  Vegetables are avoided because they possess hardly any sugar at all, unless they are being dunked into cups of ranch dressing.

“It really is a 12-year plan,” Barlow says of the HHFKA.  “We are essentially relying on instilling the kindergartners, first, with the ability to appreciate and eat fruits and vegetables, the awareness that food comes from the ground, not a package.  The older kids … their palates are perverted.”

According to the CDC, the average daily caloric intake for children is made up of 16 percent sugar.  All that sugar over so many years takes a toll similar to drug abuse, leaving palates corrupt and disassociated from what real food tastes like.

Lydia Martin, the SCCPSS nutrition program director, has a plan, however.

“We’re currently working on bringing in the agricultural education component to accompany the menu,” she offers.  She aims to create a full circle of awareness among the students, faculty and staff.  At present, 19 of Chatham County’s 54 public schools maintain some sort of school garden.  Schools and faculty want to do more.

“We have a lot of teachers who want to make that connection, but it’s hard,” Barlow says.  “By the time they do everything they have to do in the classroom, it’s hard to find the time, organization and volunteers to do a garden.”

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Cabbage Patch Kids

The private St. Andrew’s School on Wilmington Island is trying to model exactly what Barlow and Martin envision for all Chatham County schools.

Two years ago, Chef Wendy Armstrong, owner of the organic catering company Thrive, received an email from the assistant headmaster of St. Andrew’s, inquiring if she wanted to use the school’s commercial kitchen in return for developing a healthier school lunch program.  Wendy could think of no better way to champion her company’s ideals than by cooking school lunches daily for kids.  She sources products from local purveyors such as Hunter Cattle, Freeman’s Mill and Southern Swiss Dairy.  And she grows produce and herbs right on site with the help of kindergartners and first graders.

“I keep records of menus and recipes, and I also keep records of procedures and policies in hopes that other schools can implement a similar model,” says Wendy.  “We could hand them these books and they could copy what we’ve done here.”

Wendy shows me around the kitchen and the herb garden, which was built by SCAD design-for-sustainability students and Emergent Structures.  In the garden, we find first grade girls elbows deep in the dirt digging for turmeric root.  The space is listed with the Savannah Urban Garden Alliance (SUGA) and accompanied by an apiary brimming with honeybees, which was donated to the school by Hayes Walz of Hives for Humanity.

“Distribution, staffing and money,” Armstrong explains, are the struggles with duplicating the Thrive/St. Andrews model.  Small local farmers don’t always—if ever—have the capabilities to produce the massive quantity of product necessary to feed so many mouths.  Recruiting and retaining high-caliber employees with a dedication to wellness is a whole other struggle in a city that is, after all, relatively small.  Then there is money—a challenge in a county where nearly 20 percent of the residents live at or below the poverty line.

“And just because St. Andrew’s is a private school does not mean they are rolling in the dough,” Armstrong cautions as we walk back from the garden to retrieve fudgy brownies loaded with black bean puree for protein and fiber—“stealth health” at its tastiest.  “They have budgets and bills and accountabilities just like any other school—public or private.”

Barlow agrees.  She speaks with conviction about how the skills learned tending a school garden can eventually “transfer back to the home,” as students encourage their family members to grow edibles and seek out farmers’ markets.

As she and I tiptoe around the Beach High School garden, smelling herbs and growing giddy at the sight of the berries on the vine, we also tiptoe around the topic of reintroducing or restructuring home economics.  We want to facilitate a wider and deeper layer of education surrounding food, wellness and sustainable living.

“We have to get students to care,” she says.

And we’ll get there together, one tasty bite at a time.



Pack It Up

We asked local chefs to share their favorite lunch recipes, adaptable for both the home cook and the school lunch room.  Deceptively healthy, full of flavor and price-conscious, these recipes can help picky kids get the nutrition they need to stay focused throughout the day.

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Thrive’s Fudgy Brownies

Makes 24 brownies

Thrive’s chef, Wendy Armstrong, says this protein-rich recipe is easily adaptable for school cafeterias.  Just multiply all the ingredients by 4, and bake in four 9-inch-by-13-inch pan for 96 brownies.

10 ounces dark chocolate, preferably at least 60 percent cocoa

1 ½ sticks unsalted butter

6 eggs

2 cups sugar

1 cup dark brown sugar

½ tablespoon vanilla

¼ teaspoon sea salt

2 cups black bean puree

2 cups chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven by placing the rack in the middle of the oven and preheating to 375° F.  Prepare 9-inch-by-13-inch baking pan with non-stick spray and set aside.

Melt the chocolate and butter in double boiler.  In a standing mixer, combine eggs, sugars, vanilla and salt, and blend on medium speed until light in color.  Stir in the chocolate mixture and bean puree.

Spread the batter evenly in the pan, then top with chopped nuts.  Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes until a toothpick comes out with sticky crumbs.  Let the brownies cool on a rack, then place in the refrigerator to chill before cutting into 24 triangles.


Sweet Potato Salad

Serves 4

Blowin’ Smoke’s Chef Neil Youngblood makes this savory salad, packed with lots of super food power and a little heat, all year long.

1 pound sweet potatoes (about 3 medium-sized potatoes), diced

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

½ cup light or olive oil mayonnaise

½ cup plain, nonfat Greek yogurt 

1½ tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

¾ teaspoon celery seed

1 teaspoon sea salt 

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1 large green bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 large orange bell pepper, seeded and diced

1 large Vidalia onion, finely diced

Sriracha hot sauce to taste

Preheat oven to 375° F.  Toss the sweet potatoes in olive oil, salt and pepper and roast in the oven for 20 minutes or until the potatoes are caramelized and tender.  Allow them to cool.

While the potatoes cool, make the salad dressing.  In a large bowl, whisk together mayo, yogurt, vinegar, honey, celery seed, and salt and pepper.  Add the sweet potato, peppers and onions and toss with the dressing until well combined.  Add Sriracha hot sauce in small amounts until you achieve the desired flavor.


Spaghetti Squash Toss

Serves 4

Chef Patrick Gilpin, executive chef of The Collins Quarter, prepares this veggie dish for his son, Tyson, who “eats it up.”  It can be served warm or at room temperature—perfect for a lunch box or a quick meal at home.

1 medium to large spaghetti squash

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

2 to 4 ounces crumbled goat cheese, depending on how much you prefer

¼ cup toasted pine nuts

1 tablespoon honey

A handful of torn or chopped basil leaves

Juice of one lemon

Preheat oven to 375° F.  Cut the squash in half and remove seeds.  Rub each half with one tablespoon of the oil and season with salt and pepper.  Place each half, flesh side down, on a baking sheet and bake for 25 to 35 minutes or until the flesh is tender.  Remove the squash and allow it to cool slightly.

Once manageable, use a fork to pull squash threads into “spaghetti.”  Place the squash in a large bowl and add goat cheese, pine nuts and basil.  Drizzle the spaghetti with the remaining oil, honey and lemon juice.  Add salt and pepper to taste, then toss until combined.