Time was when only two things determined your status in the school cafeteria: the TV character on your lunchbox, and whether you had the year's coolest, junkiest snack inside.
But in some schools, where kids are thinking about their environmental footprints, coolness is now measured by how "green" your lunch is: Reusable sandwich wraps and water bottles, recycled lunch boxes - even cloth napkins are hip.
And, especially in schools with student gardens, the children are learning that eating locally grown fruits and vegetables is not only good for the Earth, the harvested produce is good for their bodies, too.
"Everybody knows it's important to be environmental," says Sarah-Chen Ogorek, 13, an eighth grader at Springside School in Chestnut Hill, where the girls use student-decorated melamine plates in the lunch line, and where two science teachers have begun encouraging "Waste-Free Wednesdays," a weekly zero-waste lunch event.
Students bring cloth napkins and reusable utensils, and avoid bringing juice boxes, plastic bags, or aluminum foil. To make the process easier, the school store sells water bottles with the school logo and cloth "snack packs" that include a reusable sandwich wrapper, bamboo utensils, and a cloth that unfolds into a placemat.
Cori Watkins Jr., a senior at Martin Luther King High School in the city who has worked in the school's garden, has also bought into the concept of reuse.
"I still use the same lunch box I had in third grade," says the football player. "It's a blue lunchbag, with my picture on the front that my mom had printed on there."
Can switching from packing lunch in a brown paper bag with a couple of plastic sandwich bags really have a significant effect on the environment? According to an estimate at Wastefreelunches.org, the a schoolchild generates an average of 67 pounds of waste per school year with disposable packaging. That works out to 18,670 pounds of lunch waste created every year by an average-size elementary school.
But Nathan Dalva-Baird, a third grader at Merion Elementary School, is working to reduce that average.
"Whenever I bring zip-lock bags, I always bring them home to use again," he says. His favorite snack, salt and vinegar potato chips, are packed in reusable containers.
Not surprising for a child who, as a kindergartner, persuaded his teacher to start recycling paper in their classroom. He also started a recycling club at his school.
Even now, when he sees a recyclable bottle in the trash in the cafeteria, Nathan grabs a napkin and moves the bottle into the appropriate recycling bin.
"I think it's important to keep the Earth clean," he says with the clarity of a child's eye, "because it's the only place we can live."
But reducing, reusing, and recycling aren't the only keys to a green lunchroom. The food inside the packaging matters for the Earth, and for growing healthy minds and bodies.
Slow Food Philadelphia recently hosted a Labor Day Eat-In at City Hall, as part of a national effort to get more fresh fruits and vegetables into the 30 million children who eat in America's school cafeterias every day.
About 64 percent of kids eat school-prepared lunch, according to market research group NPD, so fresh food on cafeteria menus will go a long way toward helping children eat less processed food. Not to mention helping with the obesity epidemic, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and myriad other health issues.
School farms are receiving a lot of attention lately, perhaps in part because of the popularity of Michelle Obama and her organic White House garden. Most important, many schools have seen that school gardens help kids make healthier food choices.
Since spending time on the MLK farm, Cori Watkins says he's cut down on soda, juice, and sugar. "It's helped me think more about what to put into my own body, what to eat and what not to eat. I like to stay healthy," he says. "I come here on Mondays to the farmers market to buy fruit for my lunch."
Brandon Martin, 15, will happily eat the carrots that he and his friends grew on the one-third-acre organic farm at MLK. He loved the sauteed chard, okra, and vegan spinach burgers that caterer Peg Botto of Cosmic Catering made at a recent community lunch at MLK.
The lunch, sponsored by the nonprofit Foundations Inc., which started and advises the farm education program, featured vegetables raised by the MLK farmers. It was a vegetarian feast: sauteed greens and eggplant, mashed potatoes with parsnips, caprese salad.
Indeed, Brandon gobbles up those vegetables, but he won't eat school pizza: "I don't really eat lunch at school. I wait until after school to buy my lunch," he says. "School lunch is all processed, nasty food."
He and the other student farmers are more conscious eaters now, and are especially conscious of the disconnect between the food they grow and the food served in the cafeteria.
It's clear that environmental efforts in, and related to, the lunchroom can pay off in many ways.
At Springside School, the girls have learned to put their food scraps into a bin along with the other kitchen scraps for composting. The second-graders empty the bin daily and "make dirt" using a compost recipe posted on the fence. The "dirt" eventually cooks into a natural fertilizer that is spread on the school's herb garden. The herbs are then used by the cooks to make food in the Springside kitchen.
As the girls learn as part of their environmental science curriculum, these organic methods reduce the amount of pesticides used on the school grounds, thereby reducing the amount of pesticides that run into the nearby Wissahickon Creek, which feeds into the water supply for Northwest Philadelphia.
Quite a lesson from the school lunchroom.
Only 11 percent of kids eat the recommended five servings of fruits and veggies each day, which should be the first choice for snacks. Grains, dried fruits, and nuts provide good snack alternatives. Choose snacks that pack a nutritional punch. Accompany them with lots of water and you'll see the kids through until the next meal.
Fruits: Apples, bananas, blueberries, cantaloupe cubes, cherries, clementines, grapes, sliced kiwis, orange wedges, pomegranate seeds, strawberries, raspberries, watermelon cubes.
Vegetables: Baby carrots, cucumber slices/sticks, grape tomatoes, sliced bell peppers, sugar snap peas, edamame, guacamole, hummus, baba ghanoush, white bean dip, salsa.
Grains: Whole-grain crackers, tortillas, corn chips, homemade popcorn, cereal bars, spelt pretzels, honey wheat pretzels, snap-pea crisps, fruit/nut mix bars, granola bars, rice cakes, crisp flatbreads.
Dried fruits/nuts: Apples, apricots, raisins, mangos, almonds (and almond butter), cashews (and cashew butter), peanut butter, pecans, trail mix, sunflower seeds, walnuts.
Beverages: Water, sparkling water, milk (antibiotic/ hormone free), herbal ice teas (add lemon or orange or mint), 100 percent fruit juice.
Power combos: Yogurt with fruit, tortilla rollups (fill with hard-boiled eggs, cheese, turkey), banana with peanut butter, cucumber with almond butter, homemade smoothies, salsa and corn chips, carrots and hummus, peppers and white bean dip, baba ghanoush and cucumber, sprouted-grain bread with sliced avocado.
- From Better School Food
For recipes and more information, visit www. betterschoolfood.org.
Makes 2 to 3 servings
1/4 cup pasta shapes
1/2 cup broccoli florets
31/2 ounces cooked turkey or chicken breast, chopped
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and chopped, or 6 cherry tomatoes, halved
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon toasted sesame seeds
For the dressing:
3 tablespoons light olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1. Cook the pasta in lightly salted boiling water according to the instructions on the package.
2. Steam the broccoli florets for five minutes.
3. Whisk together all the ingredients for the dressing.
4. Put the turkey or chicken, tomatoes, and scallions into a bowl together with the drained pasta and the broccoli and toss with the dressing.
Per serving (based on 3): 275 calories, 14 grams protein, 19 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams sugar, 17 grams fat, 28 milligrams cholesterol, 166 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 1 sandwich
2 tablespoons whipped cream cheese
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon honey
1 Granny Smith apple
2 tablespoons peanut butter, preferably all natural
2 slices sandwich bread
1. Begin by putting the cream cheese, vanilla extract, and honey in a bowl. Using a fork, mash those ingredients together until smooth.
2. Cut the apple in half lengthwise. Then cut each half in half again to make quarters. Lay each quarter on its side and cut away the tough, papery core and seeds. Cut each apple quarter lengthwise into thin slices.
3. Using a table knife, spread the peanut butter on one slice of bread. Spread the cream cheese mixture over the second slice of bread.
4. Cover the peanut butter with a layer of apple slices, and top with the second bread slice, cream cheese side down. Press down lightly and cut the sandwich in half or into quarters with the sharp knife and serve.
Per serving: 499 calories, 13 grams protein, 57 grams carbohydrates, 24 grams sugar, 24 grams fat, 20 milligrams cholesterol, 552 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.