Back in 2014, I first told you about the Life Time Foundation, a nonprofit which offers grants and other assistance to schools willing to eliminate the so-called “Harmful 7” from their cafeterias: artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, artificial preservatives, trans fats/hydrogenated oils, antibiotics and hormones in meats, and bleached flour.
The idea behind the Harmful 7 is that once these particular ingredients are off the table, districts will inevitably start to buy less processed, more wholesome products for their students. To date, 544 schools have been awarded Life Time grants (up from 300 schools two years ago), collectively serving 310,000 children and 44 million meals. (You can see a list of current Life Time grant recipients here.)
But I’ve always wondered what happens when Life Time’s financial assistance comes to an end. Are districts’ positive changes actually sustainable, or do they inevitably buy more processed food after the grant runs out?
I recently had the chance to ask that question of Dan DeBaun, the Life Time Foundation’s public relations specialist, who then put me in touch with Pamela Rapp, a registered dietitian who helped the Roseville City School District (Roseville, California) ditch the Harmful 7. The three of us got on the phone a few weeks ago, and what follows is an edited version of our conversation:
TLT: Dan, can you start off by telling us the scope of Life Time’s assistance to Roseville?
DeBaun: The Life Time Foundation awarded the Roseville City School District $200,000 for equipment, staff training, food subsidy and payroll, although I should mention that we currently no longer fund food subsidy or payroll as part of our grants.
TLT: And Pam, can you describe what it was like to implement the Life Time grant with Roseville schools?
Rapp: When I first came in, we were about six months into the grant, and my boss was like, “Hey, we have this grant, and now it’s yours!” [laughing] And I was like, “Right, we could do this!” It’s obviously my passion, and I was a new dietician at that point. So it was super into it.
The original aim of the grant was to help fund chicken drumsticks that were antibiotic- and hormone-free, with the hopes that we would eventually be able to meet 100 percent of the Life Time requirements. And we had a list from Life Time of all of our items that met their requirements, all of our items that didn’t, and we just kind of hacked away at it as we went along.
Life Time had various alternative products that they knew about, and then I went to a couple of food shows, so I had alternatives that I knew about. I think we started off with less than 30 percent of our products meeting the requirements. By December, 2018, the district menu was more than 95 precent free of the Harmful 7.
TLT: Wow, that’s impressive. Did the food itself change dramatically, or was it more a matter of having different ingredients but kids not seeing much of a change on their trays?
Rapp: Actually, a lot of it has changed. We used to have a four-week cycle, and now we’re down to a two-weeks cycle, so it’s definitely less items. It’s less overwhelming, and it’s also more recognizable as food and not as heavily processed.
We used to have a lot of food where it was like, “Hey, this comes in a plastic bag and you heat it up!” And I was always like, “That’s gross. I don’t want to eat anything in plastic.” And then after having kids of my own, I was thinking, “I’ve got to change this no matter what.” So we trained our staff in scratch cooking, which they’d been afraid of. Our kitchens are small, so we did have some limitations and we had to work with what we had. And change was not always easy. But I think we were able to successfully implement a lot of new things without too much staff resistance.
TLT: Was there any resistance from kids to the healthier menu?
Rapp: Not really. I think partially that’s because we came up with new items slowly, so it wasn’t like everything changed at once. And we didn’t really have like any items that were huge fail either. Nothing was like, “Oh my gosh, this is not working!” We did a lot of taste tests and our numbers didn’t really change as far as participation goes. It probably increased, if anything.
TLT: And did your food costs go up after you eliminated the Harmful 7?
Rapp: Ironically, no. We actually had to refund the grant a few times and change the terms of it, because we found that the food costs were the same for these other foods—contrary to popular belief that healthy food costs more money. Shocker!
TLT: But what about the other costs, like labor and staff training, that are associated with preparing healthier school food?
Rapp: Well, our staff training probably did cost us a little bit more [to teach staff how to cook healthier food.] And before, the staff probably had more downtime.
We also had to do a lot of menu changes. So the first couple of years involved moving the menu around a lot to make it workable. For example, we couldn’t have two items that required a lot of hours to create and plate. So there was definitely more work for me, but now my hours are reduced because a lot of the hard work has already been done.
TLT: This is a great success story, but do you think there was something unique about Roseville that made it look so easy?
Rapp: I almost think our district’s had more roadblocks, just because nobody was really pushing from the outside to make this happen. It was more internal. But I think it’s do-able for anyone, really. It just has to have a lot of staff buy-in. And these days, corporations are also changing their product formulations because a lot more people are demanding it now.
TLT: Turning back to you, Dan, are grants currently available for other districts interested in working with Life Time?
DeBaun: Yes, I would say that these grants are available. Anybody that’s willing to commit to doing with this district did—absolutely.
TLT: And how do you figure out what kind of grant to award a qualifying district?
DeBaun: The Life Time Foundation focuses our giving sustainable solutions. We want to ensure that once the partnership period is done, that the district is able to sustain the changes, specifically the elimination of the Harmful 7 categories of ingredients. So, capital equipment, software, professional development, and marketing/education tend to be sustainable solutions.
That being said, we will consider new ideas that might or might not fit into these categories, as long as they are sustainable and are linked to the elimination of the Harmful 7.
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Thanks to Dan DeBaun and Pamela Rapp for speaking with me.
If you’re interested in having your own district apply for a Life Time grant, remember that it must: participate in the National School Lunch Program; be committed to reducing and removing the Harmful 7; have support from key stakeholders (including the superintendent, school nutrition director, and parents); and be a self-operating program, rather than using a food service management company.
If you believe your district qualifies for consideration, you or your school nutrition director can reach out to Life Time here.
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