School vegetable gardens were once common, but they gradually disappeared when the federal School Lunch Program came to be. Fresh foods that came from local farms and school gardens were gradually replaced by commodities made available through the USDA, which administers the National School Lunch Programs, founded in 1946.
The program provided food for many children, but as years passed, nutritionists noted that the offerings weren't necessarily that healthy.
"One improvement began about 10 years ago, I believe, when first lady Hilary Clinton noticed fresh fruits and vegetables being served at remote military bases and asked why schools couldn't get the same fresh produce," said Jean Saunders, Evanston resident and Director of School Wellness for the Healthy Schools Campaign headquartered in Chicago.
So the USDA and the Department of Defense entered into a combined purchasing program, enabling school districts to get the benefit of the huge purchasing power of the Defense Department. That freed up money for more nutritious fresh produce for school lunches.
"The secret weapon is the kids themselves," said Saunders. "If you make it relevant to the kids, get them engaged in cooking good food or growing food and eating it because it tastes good, they will want healthier food. You have to involve whole families, whole communities to get things to change."
Two north suburban schools, one in Grayslake and another in Evanston, are teaching students how to grow their own gardens. Not only are they learning more about how to eat healthy, but they are also learning about other cultures.