COLUMBIA — With only 20 minutes to hustle children through the food line and let them eat, the kitchen manager at Lee Elementary School didn't waste time. She hailed kids by name and offered foods like a command.
"Rice and beans! Don't forget your rice and beans today, guys," Sheryl Woodson said over the chatter and shuffling feet.
Nora Croom, a second-grader, squealed when she heard the announcement. She spun around and reached for a spoon in the hot food container.
“I love it,” she said, balancing her tray in one hand while she scooped cumin-spiced legumes with the other. A sign hanging over the food tray read, "Try Beans and Rice / They're Nice!!"
"That's my big rice and beans girl," Woodson said.
Children in line also helped themselves to milk, pizza, chicken sandwiches, salads and Jell-O. Some children with home-packed lunches took beans and rice as well, and one teacher went back to her classroom to grab hot sauce.
With childhood obesity — or at least obesity awareness — on the rise, it seems counterintuitive to add another food to the menu. But some school administrators and staff see another problem emerging in children’s diets: undernourishment.
Although obesity is caused by too many calories and not enough activity, an obese child might actually still not be getting the nutrition he or she needs to grow up healthy.
“There’s a different kind of malnutrition going on. It’s over-nutrition in the wrong areas,” said Laina Fullum, Columbia Public School District's director of nutrition.
So along with efforts to curb obesity, the district is offering programs and tweaking nutritional guidelines to help children get enough nutrients.
Although the need is not as great in Columbia as it is in other Missouri cities, it exists.
Thirty-nine percent of children in the district qualify for free and reduced lunch, a federally-sponsored program to help parents pay for school meals. The state average is 46.9 percent, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
An average of 1,123 children take home nonperishable snacks at the end of each week in backpacks, or “buddy packs." The program is sponsored by the food bank and other organizations to help make sure kids keep stay fed outside of school.
All children have the option to eat breakfast at school, and 2,700 of the 17,500 children in the district eat free breakfasts, supported by the National School Lunch Program.
“We have a good infrastructure here,” Fullum said. She said the school system supports kids who suffer from "food insecurity," or hunger.
Lunches provide one-third of the nutritional needs stated in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's recommended daily allowance, and breakfasts provide one-fourth. Some schools also offer snacks.
Beans and rice
Last summer, five elementary schools offered beans and rice every school day. The response was so positive that this year, 14 of the 19 elementary schools in the district started serving free beans and rice Mondays and Fridays.
The program's primary purpose is to encourage children to eat more beans, which are an inexpensive source of nutrition. The program also gives children who might not have enough to eat over the weekend extra nutrition.
It began with an idea from Superintendent Chris Belcher.
"Beans and rice are such a healthy staple," he said, "and they are one of the most popular food staples all over the world, and the costs were so low. So I thought, 'Why don't we just provide that to everyone?'"
The extra dish allows kids to make choices and helps them feel part of a family. Belcher hopes it will help children who need to eat and encourage all to eat high- quality foods.
"We want to make it a common occurrence that when you're (at school) you can eat quality food," he said.
The program's success surprised some people. Fullum said she was shocked to see kids digging in to the atypical lunch fare.
For Amy Watkins, principal of Parkade Elementary School,, a pleasant surprise was the evident happiness when teachers and students began sharing a meal on beans and rice days. In that sense, the meal fits into a larger effort toward community-building at her school. Children sit at round tables, sometimes with teachers, and practice manners and conversation during meals.
Watkins pointed out that beans and rice have cultural resonance for some students. This year, 30 English language learners attend the elementary school.
"We have a very diverse population, and that helps to support that," Watkins said.
Beverly Borduin, principal of Grant Elementary School, said she liked the program, too. “To me it’s about keeping their tummies full so they’re better learners,” she said.
New nutritional guidelines
Schools act in other ways to help children fill their tummies well. A colorful poster hanging in the hallway at Parkade shows photographs of five children beaming and holding up full plates. They “got caught with a healthy lunch,” the poster reads. Below each picture is an equation of the food on their plates, similar to this:
1 serving of meat
+2 servings of vegetables
+1 serving of fruit
+1 serving of bread
Equals a healthy lunch
The district bases children’s lunch portions on the USDA's recommended daily allowance. These rules are old, however, based on the 1999 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and recommendations are being revised.
As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, in January the USDA released new recommendations for school lunches, which would increase the level of nutrition in foods and restrict less nutritious foods.
The new guidelines are based on the Dietary Reference Intakes. They have more extensive requirements, including more vitamins and minerals scientists have determined are necessary to children’s health. The intakes guide also averages calories over a week's time rather than portioning each meal individually.
New rules would require some figuring out, Fullum said, especially as they require nutrients which are not printed on food label ingredient lists.
If the act is approved, schools would have to comply or risk forfeiting federal funding for school meals.
The USDA is open to public input on the plan until Wednesday.
Parents are also playing a part in helping kids overcome poor health and obesity.
“This job didn’t get created in the schools, and it’s not going to get solved in the schools,” said Keith-Thomas Ayoob, children’s nutrition expert and associate clinical professor of pediatrics at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
Ayoob said parents need to build good eating habits if they want to help their children make better choices.
“I don't see children who eat better diets than their parents,” he said.
Ayoob suggested leaving healthy foods in plain view, keeping junk food out of sight, eating together as a family and sharing in the prep work and cleanup for dinner. It’s easier to prepare home-cooked meals, he said, when everyone helps out, whether through cooking or setting the table.
“Even a young child can help break apart green beans,” he said.
Family meal preparation can kill two birds with one stone, Ayoob said, as children are more likely to try new foods if they can pick them up and get familiar with them first. Sometimes they need to try something 15 times before they decide they like it.
Improving health can bring families together, Ayoob said. “Some of kids’ best memories are likely to be around the kitchen table.”
Fullum thinks along the same lines. She wants to see parents eating with their kids and advising them.
“That’s my own value system,” she said. “I sit and eat with my kids just about every night.”