“Bad food is cheap and cheap food is bad.” That is the mantra of Carolyn Pusey-Wade, Director of Nutrition, Purpose Built Schools Atlanta, more affectionately known as Chef Nana.
Since she started in SY 2022-23, the number of students who participate in school breakfast and lunch has increased significantly, particularly among high schoolers, where the increase went from 20% to 60%.
Children spend a large proportion of their waking hours at school and consume a significant proportion of their daily calories while there. Schools, therefore, have the ability to help shape dietary behaviors and attitudes about food. Moreover, schools that serve students from low-income communities– where access to fresh and healthy food is limited– can impact students’ physical and mental health since poor diets lead to negative health outcomes.
While nearly all students served by PBSA come from low-income households and qualify for free school lunch – which is often synonymous with processed and bad-tasting lunch– at Carver STEAM Academy, students line up for the salad bar stocked with spinach, romaine and an array of vegetables. Chef Nana has to give them tickets so they don’t double up on salad – the cost of fresh food is far more than less nutritious options. The wildly popular new food choices came out of a student-driven initiative to spark widespread cafeteria changes and enhanced nutrition across Purpose Built Schools Atlanta.
Purpose Built Schools’ leadership listened and responded with new menus and a new nutritional program that includes a school breakfast, lunch and snack program that Purpose Built Schools operates autonomously under the Atlanta Public Schools umbrella. Purpose Built Schools purchases its own food, cooks meals from scratch, and employs staff who are salaried employees with benefits. The organization has been successful in attracting workers who have extensive food service experience and has significantly improved food options for students and staff.
The flexibility and autonomy of that partnership has allowed Chef Nana and her team to create a delicious and nutritious way to get students what they asked for. And it’s working. For instance, at the end of SY22-23, a larger proportion of students attending PBSA schools had participated in school meals (breakfast and lunch) throughout the year compared with the APS participation benchmark average.
Studies show there is a connection between healthy nutrition and academic performance, however healthy food costs much more. For instance, a fresh apple can cost up to $.40/each, whereas a pre-packaged fruit cup, which typically contains both added sugar and corn syrup, costs closer to $.17. Purpose Built Schools invests an extra $300 per student each year to give them nourishing food. As noted above, the majority of their students receive nearly all their nutrition at school with most eating at least two meals, plus snacks.
“Our students deserve delicious, nourishing food,” said Pusey-Wade. “I am so proud of the students who helped advocate for changes to our nutrition program and thankful to Purpose Built Schools for helping fund such an important initiative. Our deserving children are reaping the rewards of having these new food choices.”