Sofia, a pre-kindergarten student at the Environmental Sciences Magnet School, picks a fruit choice from many options for lunch. The school uses the "build-a-tray" system where students fill their lunch tray with a protein, whole grain, vegetable, fruit and milk portion.                                                                                                                                                                                                           Photo by Bailey Wright

A Balanced Diet

Hartford Public Schools takes on the challenge to serve healthier meals to students

By PaulMichael Mullally

It’s 11:45 a.m. at the Sport and Medical Sciences Academy in Hartford. The public school cafeteria is still empty, but the kitchen is bustling in anticipation as more than 50 of the school’s more than 400 students wait for their lunch period to start. The cooks rush the food from the cutting board to the serving line, getting ready for the next wave of hungry students. The kitchen smells like tomato sauce, cheese and baked bread. That can only mean one thing: it’s pizza day. Cooks are preparing a 100 percent whole-grain garlic French bread pizza, a healthier alternative than the traditional fat-laden pie. With the pizza, students can pick from cups of freshly chopped strawberries, apples and pineapple, and, of course, one-percent reduced fat milk. It’s not just the cooks who ensure there are healthier meals on the students’ trays. There’s a whole village, so to speak, behind the planning and purchasing of nutritious food for Hartford’s students. The team includes three registered dietitians who spend months carefully testing and planning the meals, an especially important process in a city where poverty levels are high and many residents find it difficult to provide nutritious meals at home. Since 2015, all students in Hartford public schools have been entitled to free breakfasts and lunches under the Community Eligibility Provision of the 2010 federal Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act. CEP allows the country’s neediest communities to provide free meals to all students, without the administrative burden of collecting income information from each family. Hartford Public Schools Director of Food Services Lonnie Burt, a registered dietitian and dietitian-nutritionist, said there are many factors, including federal school food guidelines, that go into menu-planning for more 20,000 students in more than 50 schools. All public school systems in the state must follow guidelines set by the United States Department of Agriculture and Connecticut’s State Department of Education to keep funding. That is vital because the city’s public schools food service system is financially self-sufficient, meaning it is not subsidized by the city’s school budget. The guidelines require that students have at least three of these five categories on their plates: dairy (milk), fruit, vegetables, grain and protein (meat). There are also nutritional standards for calories, saturated fat, sodium, trans-fats and sugar. Those elements must meet both daily and weekly requirements. School lunch menus received a major makeover in 2012 under the Healthy, Hunger Free-Kids Act. The act sought to establish healthier school lunch menus, moving away from long-time staples such as fried and processed foods. The program was initially criticized by both health professionals and students, who argued the dietary restrictions were too tough and the strict portion control meant kids were still hungry after eating school meals. “They (the USDA) initially had a lot of opposition,” but things were refined over time, University of Connecticut nutritional sciences lecturer Rhonda A. Brownbill said. Burt said she believed in the guidelines from the start. “We believe in nutrition and we love nutrition,” Burt said. “I think that these new meal pattern guidelines are some of the best things that I’ve seen in meals since I’ve been in it [food and nutrition], and I’ve been in it since 1985.” When the guidelines were implemented, Hartford did not have to change much of its menu because the schools were already serving fresh fruits and vegetables, along with whole grain products, Burt said. It was just a matter of properly grouping the foods, she said. Burt also emphasized that nutritional planning means little unless students actually eat the food. “If you don’t eat it, chew it, or swallow it, it’s actually not nutritious,” Burt said. “We actually need to find food that our students are going to consume: that is the goal here. We don’t just randomly stick it on the menu and serve it. We vet it, taste it and try it before we put it out there.” About 17 percent of the school district’s foods are from local suppliers. Burt said her office hopes to boost that percentage to 25 percent to 30 percent within the next few years. Because Hartford’s students represent a range of cultures from Jamaican and South American to Polish, Asian and African-American, the menus include many cultural favorites, said Nutrition Support Manager Brunella Ibarrola, a registered dietitian and dietitian-nutritionist Ibarrola said the system offers healthier versions of traditional favorites. One example is a healthier taco: meat in a whole grain taco shell with whole grain rice and pigeon peas, beans and fresh cilantro, alongside a shredded lettuce and tomato salad. Another example is crispy baked plantains, instead -of the traditional preparation that double fries the starchy vegetable. The culturally diverse foods are often more expensive and harder to find, Burt said. If a student doesn’t find a main course he or she likes, there are always alternatives at each meal, including sandwiches, salads, fresh fruits and vegetables, Burt said. The system is also sensitive to students with disabilities and diseases, she said, including allergies and diabetes and chewing or swallowing issues. “Things you’d see almost in a hospital setting, you’d find here,” Burt said. Another challenge is that 20 percent of the city’s schools do not have full service kitchens, and not all the schools have the same equipment. So, some schools serve pre-packed meals that are heated, then served. “If you spoke with any of our pre-pack students, I would say they’re not thrilled with that. We can’t change that. That’s an infrastructure problem that we’ve worked hard to overcome,” Burt said. Within school lunch lines, the standards are set. But the most nutritious school meals can’t undo poor choices made by students beyond school grounds. Schools can’t control snacks or lunches prepared at home, Brownbill said. They can’t stop older students from grabbing food from fast food restaurants or quick-serve marts during lunch. Healthy eating relies on sound nutritional education, Brownbill said. It needs to be prioritized and taught in the schools, starting in preschool and emphasized every single year, she said. Programs should also include community outreach, she said, In Hartford, the public school system reaches into the community by hosting dinners, where parents and students try out school meals together. In return, Burt said, she hopes parents will see that the food is good and encourage their kids to eat it. “Most of America has a preconceived notion of what they think school lunch is, and so, our goal is to try and change some of that,” Burt said. PaulMichael Mullally is a 2017 University of Connecticut graduate with majors in journalism and communication.

Environmental Sciences Magnet School cook manager, Pamela Pearsons, prepares Caesar salads for lunch.       Photo by Bailey Wright

“Most of America has a preconceived notion of what they think school lunch is, and so, our goal is to try and change some of that.”
           – Lonnie Burt


More than Just Food, It’s

Social Injustice

By Claire Galvin

While many 16-year-olds spend their after-school hours participating in sports or practicing for their school play, Nate Davis of Hartford said he puts his effort into effecting change in the city’s school system, particularly as it relates to food.


“Everybody should have a voice no matter who you are,” the 10th grader at University High School of Science and Engineering said.


He advocates for more nutritious, accessible and culturally diverse food choices in his home city, a place where poverty is common and food is too often highly processed, too expensive or simply not available.


Food and nutrition experts often call Hartford a food desert because of its high poverty rate and the dearth of easily accessible fresh and healthy foods in many neighborhoods. Sometimes, it’s referred to as a food swamp because of the proliferation of fast-food, empty-calorie offerings in these same neighborhoods.


Grow Hartford Youth Program Director Sarana Nia sees the city’s food reality as more complex and intertwined with the many other social justice challenges.


“Hartford is not a food desert, or a food swamp.” she said. “This is food apartheid.”


Davis is among a core group of 13 to 15 Grow Hartford Youth working to change that. The part-time work-study program gives students a chance to learn and make money. The youth-led food and social justice advocacy group is part of Hartford Food System, a non-profit agency at 1 Congress St. that promotes food equality in Hartford.


Nia said that Grow Hartford encourages students to look at food injustice, or as she prefers to call it, food liberation, as part of the social fabric of Hartford.


“We talk about it in relation to other oppressive systems. We talk about how racism, classism and white supremacy function as part of a food system.”


After all, everyone must eat and, therefore, everyone should have access to healthy food.


“This is structural. This is about systems,” Nia said. “This isn’t about your personal choices. It’s about what is available to you, and who’s making those choices.”


For example, Nia said she would never shame someone for eating at bodegas, or act like those are not legitimate places for people to get food. Even though the amount of nutritious food may be limited in the neighborhood shops, that may be what is readily available.


Nia has done youth work for 14 years. She has experience with farming, cooking and permaculture, the establishment of sustainable agriculture.  She has also taught community health and nutrition classes, and has experience with informal community organizing around motherhood and childcare as a doula. Nia came to her position in June 2016.













Davis said he enjoys meeting new people and going out into the community to express himself as part of the program. For example, he addressed the Hartford Food Policy Commission about how to implement student surveys.


Grow Hartford Youth began 13 years ago as an agricultural engagement program. About three years ago, the program expanded from a strictly summer-based farming program to a year-round operation. Students from 13 to 18 years old are active.


Among the group’s goals is what is called “10 Slices of Justice” for high school-based meals. In a city where many students eat two meals a day at school, the goals focus on school-based nutrition. They ask for bigger portions, better quality food, local food, better lunch time, more food education, on site cooking (not just heating up), more food options, hot breakfasts, culturally appropriate foods and a youth voice in school, food-focused decision making.


The group’s work helped secure hot school breakfasts, the posting of school meal nutritional information, and cafeteria spice racks that allow students to better satisfy their individual palates.


Nia said the group is now working with the schools to form student lunch advisory committees.


In addition to the students, two young adults are on the staff, including Marvin Scott, a 20-year-old Hartford resident who has worked with Sarana Nia for several seasons.


“I wasn’t sure about it, but I gave it a try and Sarana showed me everything,” Scott said. “From then on I really liked the summer program and how everything went. I found it fun.”


Scott became involved through the Hartford Youth Service Corps program, a program that connects Hartford’s youth to jobs.


Nia said Scott is critical to the recent success of the group.


“Marvin has been exceptional for me to watch his growth since starting in June,” Nia said. “He’s the one that’s still here and still kicking with us. He was asked to really push himself in terms of getting to know the work and helping to develop and facilitate workshops. Marvin is my hope sometimes.”


In the academic year, students meet after school to learn about food and social injustices. In the summer, they learn about agriculture, food sources and Hartford’s food system through farms in Hartford.


During the academic year, the group meets three times a week after school at the Hartford Food System office. Students participate in a variety of educational workshops, team building activities, role-playing and advocacy work. They also listen to guest lecturers or head into the community for talks or meetings. For example, they recently protested at city hall against a proposed budget cut that could cost 40 teachers their jobs.


At one meeting this winter, the students acted out skits that provided examples of the Three I’s of Oppression – institutional, internalized and interpersonal. One group of four performed a skit in which they demonstrated how a police officer pulling over a black person as opposed to a white person could reflect institutional racism because the police are an institutional force.


During the summer program, Nia said she tries to minimize the hands-on labor on the farms, while maximizing food education.


“Students don’t really work on the farm over the summer,” Nia said. “I’m not a fan of that model, like ‘let’s have a bunch of brown kids come do labor on our farm.’ That’s problematic and not food justice at all. We try to limit their time on the farm and develop actual education around it.”


Nia said they might learn the basic elements of nutrition or plant identification or go on garden walks. They also learn about social justice and the basics of community organizing.


“Here’s what it looks like, here’s what you do, and now go do it,” Nia said.

“A lot of our students are on that younger end of the spectrum, like 14,

and it’s a struggle. It’s hard work, what we’re asking them to do.”


Scott agreed, saying, “It’s a process.”


The summer program runs 20 hours a week for six weeks. The farms

are located on Love Lane, Park and Main, Broad Street and Zion Street.

Students are paid minimum wage through the Our Piece in the Pie

program, a youth development agency.


During the school year program, students get a stipend. The stipend is

for 10 to 35 hours of involvement a month, and ranges from $55 and

$170. If a student returns for a second year, the pay scale goes up to

between $65 and $205 because of their higher skill level.


Nia said she and the other organizers do not ask what the students use their money for.

However, she said they tell her a variety of things, like to help pay their family’s bills, or

their own bills, like for their cell phone or new sneakers.


For Davis and Scott, Grow Hartford is about more than the food on their plates. It is about community.


“Grow Hartford has taught me not to make assumptions based on the things that you live around because you will always find something good everywhere you go,” Davis said.


Claire Galvin is a 2017 University of Connecticut graduate with majors in journalism and communication.


Grow Hartford Youth Program

By William Heyne

“Hartford is not a food desert, or a food swamp, this is food apartheid.”

                                                                   – Sarana Nia