Jocelyn Hsu, MBA ’93 and Prominent Patriot, knew something had to change in Fairfax County Public Schools after visiting her children’s cafeteria for lunch. Hsu and other parents found plastic wrapped food full of artificial ingredients.
“We were very disappointed to find many items that looked like they came from a gas station. Our rallying cry came from the discovery that the hamburger patty served to our kids had 26 ingredients, compared to the three ingredients in a fast food hamburger patty,” she says. “We were sad to say we would rather feed our kids at a fast food restaurant than at the school cafeteria.”
In conjunction with her studies in nutrition education, Hsu co-founded Real Food for Kids (RFFK) in 2011. Hsu, who is also vice president of corporate services with Paradyme Management, has served as chairperson of the board for RFFK for the past two years. Her term ended in January as she passed the chair role to another founding member, Rick Barnard.
The nonprofit’s mission is to work with schools in the Washington metropolitan area to improve the quality of food, develop and deliver programs in nutrition and health, and to work with the school community to build a culture of health, both at school and home.
In the last three years, RFFK’s advocacy led to 60 elementary schools in Fairfax County receiving salad bars. By 2021, all 141 elementary schools in the county will have salad bars. Additionally, more than 5,000 students participated in RFFK’s annual Food Day, an event held at schools in low-income communities. The organization has trained 220 cafeteria managers through its Chef Academy, and 40 school officials, school board members, and community stakeholders from across the region participate in the Lunch Room Collective.
“The collective is a coalition that allows neighboring school districts to identify common challenges, share solutions, and lift up the innovative work being done in our region and nationally to feed kids today and set them up for success tomorrow,” says Hsu.
Real Food for Kids became a 501(c)(3) organization in 2013, and has grown to include two staff members and six active board members. The program has touched 190,000 students in Fairfax County schools, and hundreds more from other school districts that participate in events like the Culinary Challenge.
George Mason University’s Lilian de Jonge, assistant professor at the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies, is partnering with Real Food for Kids to lead research for the Lunch Room Environment Study. George Mason students are assisting de Jonge with the research. The study, funded by the Northern Virginia Health Foundation, will “provide critical insights into the factors that influence students’ eating habits at school and the interventions that could lead to improved health and wellness,” says Jenn Yates, executive director of Real Food for Kids.
Professor de Jonge and the students are partnering with researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University for this study, and recently wrapped up year one. Researchers surveyed students and staff to assess their impressions of school lunch rooms and observed the lunch rooms to rate them on factors like crowding, noise, lighting, and supervision. Once the data is analyzed, the researchers will focus on one lunch room environmental factor and work to improve the environment.
“Mason students working with de Jonge are critical to the execution of this research, undergoing training on how to rate lunch room environmental factors, conducting the on-site observations, and analyzing the collected data from assessments and observations,” says Yates.
In the future, Real Food for Kids hopes to continue expanding to surrounding school districts. Yates says the goal is to bring parents, school officials, and public health experts together to provide high-quality food in schools and teach kids healthy eating habits.
“We recognize that school food programs can only do so much without removing many barriers they face to providing fresh, healthy meals. These barriers include lack of equipment to prepare fresh food, kitchens too small to prepare food on site, inadequate training for staff regarding healthy cooking techniques, and incredibly tight budgets to pay for food, equipment, and labor,” says Yates. “We aim to make school food a greater priority, and mobilize parents to weigh in on funding decisions that will impact their children’s schools.”
Real Food for Kids also wants to change perceptions surrounding school food, because on average, school meals are healthier than those brought from home. “Many parents continue to think of school lunch as an option of last-resort. We aim to change the narrative around school lunch and encourage more parents and students to buy lunch at school,” Yates says.