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Food Forum focuses on how to improve lunch menu

Mitra Pishgahzadeh, Fact Checker

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Non-profit organizations Real Food For Kids: Montgomery (RFKM) and Montgomery Victory Gardens hosted a food forum Nov. 2 for elected officials, parents and students to discuss the quality of the MCPS cafeteria food and improvements that can be made to give students healthier options.

Local and national experts on nutrition and diet, food education, and sourcing fresh food for schools held presentations at the event, which was held in Silver Spring.

“I believe we have a common goal: to provide the best for our students,” said Marla Caplon, director of MCPS Division of Food and Nutrition Services.

According to RFKM cofounder Karen Devitt, RFKM has more than 800 members in 109 out of MCPS’ 202 schools, and are working on “transparency and communication, the elimination of harmful chemical additives, and healthier vending and a la carte options.”

All foods sold in schools must meet USDA guidelines, but this does not always guarantee good quality, according to Devitt.

“Just because a product meets the USDA guidelines for school food doesn’t make it a healthy product,” Devitt said. “My top three items that fall in this category are the strawberry milk, Sidekicks, and Welch’s fruit snacks.”

According to Devitt, food dyes that are added to some foods and beverages like strawberry milk, Welch’s Fruit Snacks and Sidekicks, raise some issues. The dyes have no nutritional value and can affect the social behaviors of students: hyperactivity has been observed in some students consuming food dyes.

“This affects the whole population,” said Lisa Lefferts, Senior Scientist at The Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Students who are affected by food dyes are more hyperactive and can be disruptive in classrooms, and this is entirely preventable.”

According to Caplon, MCPS Food Services is the 16th largest food service in the nation.

“We’re always looking for new products,” Caplon said. “We are gradually trying to get rid of processed foods and looking for less processed foods to sell. We have to make sure we’re offering healthy foods to students.”

There are many factors that determine what foods MCPS puts on the menu, one of which is the pricing.

“Price is the factor to menu planning, but not the determining factor,” Caplon said.

According to Kathy Lawrence, director of Strategic Development, School Food FOCUS, one in every three children is overweight to obese.

“Kids need better food now,” Lawrence said. “We absolutely have the power to make the changes we need. We’re looking at what are the most important changes that need to be made, and we have to make a regional approach.”

Despite the long process it may require, people are determined to make a diffrence.

“There are ways to improve school food and thrive financially,” Devitt said in her testimony to the Board of Education. “There is no quick fix. This is our school system, these are our kids, and this is our community. As a community, we all need to work together on this.”

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