Brain Food

Creating a balanced diet may prove more challenging than you think. Despite all the regulations and labels, a lot of the process gets lost in translation from farm to plate. When dealing with a wide-scale output like school cafeterias, finding that balance is even more difficult, especially when it relates to the impressionable, growing bodies of our next generation.

With that being said, Marion Center Area School District has created a system that produces healthier eating opportunities for students, while also remaining transparent with them.

For many parents, the food served at their child’s school is an important variable to consider. There are so many food buzzwords circulated nowadays that a general paranoia may permeate if they aren’t properly informed. “Processed foods” is an especially triggering word for some, usually spun in a negative light. But in reality, the phrase “processed foods” covers a broad range of things, and Marion Center Nutrition Services Director Allison Kimmel has dispelled this misinterpretation with effective, healthy food planning for her students.

As a dietitian, Kimmel sees food processing as beneficial. The definition of processed foods is any deliberate change made to a food to alter it from its natural state. That can be something as basic as washing, cutting or cooking said foods. Food processing can actually be helpful — from pasteurizing raw milk and improving vitamin content to repurposing an unused harvest and maintaining perishables that won’t stay fresh through the short Pennsylvania growing season.

Kimmel highlighted the importance of food safety for her students, whose bodies are still growing and immune systems still developing. Maintaining a food menu that is compliant with the Healthy Hunger-free Kids Act of 2014, as well as making fresh fruits and vegetables available throughout the year, with the help of a USDA produce program, are just a two of the methods Kimmel employs to give her students the best meals available.

The negative tone often wrongly associated with processed foods is most closely related to people’s image of fast foods. There’s no shortage of unhealthy habits related to fast food, which remains a topic of focus for Marion Center health teacher Paul DeHaven.

DeHaven has taken note from popular influencer’s like Jamie Oliver and "Super Size Me" director Morgan Spurlock to create an awareness in his students of the many pitfalls of fast food. From his experience as both an educator and a coach, it’s easy to see when a student isn’t eating well — they tend to lack energy, lose focus easily and with a continued combination of poor eating and exercise, will find themselves on the fast track to obesity. The oversaturation of fast foods (which are often high in sodium, sugar and fat, among other undesirables) has become an issue on a societal level, as DeHaven sees it.

“You’re not seeing kids as physically strong or in as good cardio-vascular condition as they have been in the past,” he says.

A lot of time is spent getting children into shape rather than just giving them the knowledge to do so, DeHaven adds. But when it comes to the food served at Marion Center School District, DeHaven believes Kimmel is covering all the bases of a good diet for their students.

The lunch menu at Marion Center is indicative of the passion behind the staff running food services. The menu is immediate eye-candy that lists the week’s offerings, as well as extra nutritional trivia and various info that might entertain students (i.e. the Billboard Weekly Top Artists Lists). If the menu looks interesting and has the students reading it, hopefully they’re learning something, Kimmel adds.

Another part of the menu’s success is due to student input. Kimmel meets with the Student Council regularly to taste-test new menu items and get feedback. Student feedback is especially important when considering variety for the menu.

“A healthy diet is based on a variety of foods,” Kimmel says.

Marion Center runs their menu on a six-week cycle. When serving over 1,000 meals daily district-wide, it’s important to ward off stagnation, but also to help grow each students’ taste palette. DeHaven adds that Kimmel’s portion sizing is also a great contributor to their food planning, as the average serving size for Americans is much larger than in most countries.

Looking at all the variables considered, Kimmel has crafted a food plan that is handled with extreme care and takes each of her students’ well-being into consideration.

“Nutrition is something that I’m passionate about,” Kimmel says. “It’s something that is imperative to our students. So we try to incorporate it in the classroom, in our breakfast and lunch lines and a bit of nutritional info on the menus gets that across as well.”

Despite having hundreds of mouths to feed, the students at Marion Center are in good hands.

“We’re honored when parents send their kids to eat breakfast and lunch with us,” Kimmel says. “My staff takes great pride in making nice entrees for them.”