Foodie News

Salivating over school lunches? It's happening at River Oaks Baptist

Salivating over school lunches? It's happening at River Oaks Baptist

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Many students, especially the older ones, like to make their own salads. Photo by Ruthie Johnson Miller
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A student happily munches on an apple. Photo by Ruthie Johnson Miller
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The Protein Police checks in with student lunchers. Photo by Ruthie Johnson Miller
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Steamed cauliflower Photo by Ruthie Johnson Miller
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Two green-light foods, two yellow-light foods, one red-light food = The Spotlight Program Photo by Ruthie Johnson Miller
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An over-the-shoulder look at a balanced meal Photo by Ruthie Johnson Miller
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News_River Oaks Baptist_lunch program
News_River Oaks Baptist_lunch program
News_Ruthie_school lunches_Steamed Cauliflower
News_River Oaks Baptist_lunch program
News_River Oaks Baptist_lunch program

Recently, for lunch I had oven-roasted potatoes, lightly steamed cauliflower, gorgeous risotto cakes, and a delicious cup of Italian Wedding soup. But I wasn’t at Haven or t’afia. I was in a school cafeteria.

Uh-huh. Michelle Obama would approve.

Like most other schools in Houston, the K-8 River Oaks Baptist used to have pre-portioned student lunches delivered daily. But menu items were lackluster and loaded with preservatives, and more food ended up in the trash than in students' tummies. Something had to change.

Now River Oaks Baptist contracts student meals to SAGE Dining Services, a Maryland-based company determined to change the way students think about lunch. SAGE brings in chefs and managers who prepare all food on site, and they use what they call a stoplight program to teach kids to make healthy choices. The theory is that students choose their lunch items for themselves: they can have one red-light food, two yellow-light foods, and as many green-light foods as they like.

The idea is easily digestible and teaches kids to budget their meals appropriately. Red light foods are the heavier items like lasagna, hamburgers, and roasted poblano soup. The yellows are a bit lighter: homemade hummus, tuna salad, and Spanish rice. And the green light foods are the healthiest of the lot — things like fresh fruit, sautéed spinach, and fish tacos. There are two soups made fresh daily, as well as sandwich and salad bars for when nothing else appeals.

Sounds great — but does it work? “Absolutely,” says Food Service Director Jill Lewis. “With 12-14 menu items to choose from daily, even the pickiest of students can find something of interest.”

The process is not quite as seamless as it sounds, though. The food deserves serious praise, but I want more education involved . . . to teach students what makes an item a red, yellow, or green-light food, and then to oversee as the students choose the dishes for themselves. Yes, all dishes are labeled as red, yellow, or green-light foods — but the labels are small and not at the eye-level of a child. So kids don’t necessarily learn or use the system, but rather decide what they want and wait for someone to fix it.

Regardless, it's a tremendous step up. While many school cafeterias around town feature cheap, fatty foods that are high in preservatives, River Oaks Baptist (and the seven other Houston schools who use SAGE Dining Services) is clearly committed to changing the norm.

In addition to higher quality foods made in-house, they’ve got plenty of resources on hand to combat food-related allergies, including soy products and nut-free zones. And while the students do pretty well on their own, the school has “Protein Police” circulating the cafeteria to make sure students are eating enough of the energy foods to keep them going during class.

As we reexamine what our students are eating these days at school, it’s nice to find an institution taking proactive measures.

Bon appétit, indeed.