December 13, 2019

A recipe for success: Are these five Catholic schools serving up the best healthy lunches in the archdiocese?

Sixth-graders Yasmin Carlos, left, Miguel Macias, Jonathan Villegas and David Anzurez line up for lunch at St. Anthony School in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Sixth-graders Yasmin Carlos, left, Miguel Macias, Jonathan Villegas and David Anzurez line up for lunch at St. Anthony School in Indianapolis. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

Flashing a smile, Cindy Greer makes a statement that’s sure to be challenged by her fellow principals and parents across the archdiocese.

Looking out across the lunchroom filled with her students at St. Anthony School in Indianapolis, principal Greer declares, “I have the cutest kids—and the best families!”

It’s exactly what you want every principal at a Catholic elementary school in the archdiocese to say. And while there will undoubtedly be good-natured challenges to Greer’s sincere boast at the next principals’ meeting, there is another reason to brag that would be harder to dispute.

That’s the school lunch program at St. Anthony where the menu on a recent day included honey-lime chicken, rice and corn, supplemented by a trip to the fruit-and-veggie bar where the selection included celery sticks, florets of cauliflower, red grapes and slices of watermelon.

Then there are the large glass water dispensers usually found in a trendy, healthy-food restaurant, where the water is infused on different school days with hints of cucumber, a blend of pineapple and mint, or a combination of strawberry and basil.

It’s all a revelation—and a difference-maker—for the 278 students at St. Anthony, the vast majority of whom qualify for the free meal program that is 100 percent funded by the federal government.

“We have so many healthy choices,” Greer says. “For many of our families, fruits and vegetables are some of the most expensive things they purchase at the grocery store so they have those choices here.

“It makes a difference. If you’re hungry, you’re not going to be able to learn as well. If you don’t have a healthy diet, you don’t feel as good and you don’t pay as much attention as you could. Good nutrition is one of the foundations for children to learn.”

As Greer shares those insights, Elizabeth Edwards stands next to her smiling. It’s the smile of someone who has spent the past five years transforming the nutrition-and-meal program at St. Anthony and the four other Indianapolis Catholic schools that are part of the Notre Dame ACE Academies—Central Catholic, Holy Angels, Holy Cross Central and St. Philip Neri.

‘Our kids love it’

At 32, Edwards is a mother of two—with another child on the way soon—who strives to live a healthy lifestyle. She heads to the grocery store a few times a week to get fresh produce, which serves as the foundation for the simple, quick-prep meals she cooks for her family.

It’s a way of life she wants for the children at the Notre Dame ACE Academies in Indianapolis, beginning with an emphasis on healthy food choices.

“With all the statistics about kids being obese and overweight, schools have a vital role in teaching kids about healthy foods and how to like them,” Edwards says. “Establishing good eating habits early in life is so important to setting them up for later in life.”

There’s also the goal of making sure that the children who come from families that struggle economically have enough to eat each day to sustain them and help them grow and learn.

When Edwards started the new nutrition program five years ago, the registered dietician inherited a system where meals were basically frozen dinners that were heated and served. Her approach—with the help of assistant director Kelly James and about 15 staff members across the five schools—is to use fresh food and make most meals from scratch in the schools’ kitchens.

“Processed food is so cheap. It takes a lot of effort and energy to make this work,” she says. “One of my biggest challenges is figuring out what they like to eat, what’s healthy and meets my ideals for what I want to serve the kids, and what meets our budget.”

There’s also the challenge of limited time for breakfast before school and a dinner option at the end of the school day. So while Edwards and her staffs usually provide sandwiches for those meals, they put their emphasis on a well-rounded, home-cooked meal at lunch.

For the honey-lime chicken entrée, the marinade was made from scratch and the chicken was soaked in it overnight. It’s just one of the 20 different hot entrees that are offered every month, part of Edwards’ plan to build variety into the program. And while the students have other daily options of a fresh salad or a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich, most of them at St. Anthony choose the hot meal, followed by a trip to the fruit-and-veggie bar.

“I get the fun comments from kids about how they want tacos every week—or how they haven’t had some things before,” Edwards says. “One kid said he never had a baked potato, and others had never seen kiwi before.”

Ruth Hurrle has noticed the difference the choices have made to the 250 students at Central Catholic School.

“Our kids love it,” says Hurrle, the principal at Central Catholic. “Our fresh-fruits-and-vegetables program is really popular. It’s exposing them to something they would never have the chance to try. The other day, they had radishes that were supposed to taste like strawberries.”

Her enthusiasm also extends to the breakfast that is offered at the school.

“That’s made a really big impact. We have 175 students who take advantage of it. We see better attention spans and student stamina in the morning.”

A recipe for success

While the health of the students is a priority of the nutrition program, so is the health of the environment. Conservation efforts at the five schools include eliminating foam cups and single-use containers, and replacing plastic utensils with silverware.

Another focus involves cutting down on food waste and composting what’s left on the students’ plates—which has been good news for the three chickens at Holy Angels School.

“We have three chickens right now, and some of the compost goes straight to the chickens. They eat quite a bit,” says Holy Angels principal Justin Armitage. “We also have outdoor gardens, and some of that compost will go out there. We want our kids to learn about sustainability.”

The chickens also do their part for the school.

“They produce a dozen eggs a week, and the eggs are used for a number of projects,” says Armitage. “Once a week, the kindergartners bake something. They’ve done pumpkin cookies, chocolate chip cookies and mini pancakes. They use eggs from the chickens.”

As always, what comes first in the nutrition program is the focus on the students. Count 11-year-old Yasmin Carlos as a big fan.

“The food we get here is really good,” says the St. Anthony sixth-grader, flashing a huge smile. “There are different things we need to get healthy and learn.”

Her classmate Miguel Macias nods in agreement, and notes about the fruit-and veggie bar, “We can pick what we want—apples, oranges, broccoli or sprouts or celery. It makes me more focused.”

That result blends into the emphasis on education that the children’s parents want for their sons and daughters.

“My parents want the best for their children, and they know that education is key in making that happen,” Greer says. “They want their kids to have an easier life and more opportunity than they’ve had. I’ve heard that from every family.”

Edwards nods as Greer shares that insight, knowing she is doing her part in that recipe for success.

“When I look at these kids, it makes me feel really good,” Edwards says. “I feel the work I do really matters. This is a passion for me—knowing it’s making a real difference in their health and their education and how they will perceive food when they grow up. It makes everything we’re doing worthwhile.” †

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