Cantwell: New Program Will Help Washington School Districts Serve More Healthy Lunches

Cantwell-authored pilot program paves the way for Washington school to serve healthier school meals with pulse crops - peas, lentils and chickpeas

Today, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) joined two award-winning Seattle chefs to show 30 elementary school children some delicious healthy “Superfoods” they soon could be eating in school lunchrooms under a new program in the Farm Bill  that President Obama signed into law this month.

Included in the Farm Bill is the Cantwell-authored Pulse School Pilot program, which will provide resources to serve healthy lunches. The $10 million pilot program – modeled after the Whole Grains program – will enable schools across the country to test out new recipes and purchase more Washington-grown peas, lentils and chickpeas.

Cantwell and award-winning chefs Maria Hines and Amber Kelley tested out new kid-friendly recipes using peas and lentils for a group of 30 kids at the Wallingford Boys and Girls Club. The program could bring more dishes using raw beans, lentils and hummus, and breads, tortillas and pastas fortified with pulse crop flour to school lunch trays. Also attending the event were Wendy Weyer, Nutrition Services Director for Seattle Public Schools, Tim McGreevy, CEO of the U.S. Dry Pea & Lentil Council, and Meghan Sweet, Club Director from Boys and Girls Club Wallingford.

“Here in Washington state, we’re the number one grower of chickpeas in the country,” Cantwell said at today’s event. “This initiative is about helping farmers in Washington state and about helping people eat healthier. There are more than 2,000 schools in Washington state we hope will look at taking advantage of this program.”

The Pulse School Pilot provision – authored by Cantwell – authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to invest $10 million through 2017 to purchase pulse crops to use in school breakfasts and lunches. This could include raw beans and lentils as well as foods made from pulse crops, such as hummus. Flours made from pulse crops could also be added to breads, tortillas and pastas to enhance their nutritional value.

Seattle Public Schools has offered foods from pulse crops, including homemade hummus, as part of its school lunch program for several. The school district plans this spring  to test new recipes, including an updated vegetarian chili and lentil Sloppy Joes, said Weyer, Seattle Public Schools nutrition director.

“Pulse crops can be introduced either through their raw product or processed into prepared food such as hummus, or milled into flour that can be used in breads, tortillas or pastas,” Weyer said. “I’m proud to say Seattle Public Schools has been introducing students to pulse crops for many years.”

Kelley is an 11-year old chef who hosts “Cook With Amber,” an online show focusing on healthy dishes. In 2013 Kelley visited the White House for the Kids’ State Dinner as the Washington state winner of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Healthy Lunchtime Challenge” to promote healthy meals for kids. Cantwell watched as Kelley showed how to prepare hummus.

“I think being healthy is cool, and I wanted everyone else to know that.  It turns out that tons of people think eating healthy is cool. And not just in the Pacific Northwest, but everywhere,” Kelley said.

Hines is the winner of the 2009 James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest. She opened her first restaurant, Tilth, in Wallingford in September 2006. Hines also owns two other restaurants in Seattle: Golden Beetle and Agrodulce. She has appeared on “Top Chef Masters” and “Iron Chef.” On Wednesday, she prepared turkey lentil tacos.

The Pulse Pilot program “really drives healthy eating into the school system, which is definitely something we’re in need of,” Hines said. “We’re currently doing it, but there is always room for improvement.”

At the conclusion of the Pulse School Pilot, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will determine the program’s effectiveness by measuring increases in student consumption of pulse crops, identifying pulse crops students prefer and determining how pulse crops change nutritional levels in school meals. The Pulse School Pilot is modeled after the successful 2008 Whole Grains Pilot program, which helped the USDA purchase five million pounds of whole grain pancakes and tortillas for schools.

According to the American Pulse Association pulse crops are good sources of fiber, potassium, protein and other essential vitamins and nutrients. Pulse crops are among the most cost-effective sources of these essential nutrients and proteins – making them an affordable option for schools offering free or reduced lunch.

Washington state is the top chickpea producer in the nation – producing nearly half of the nation’s total. Washington is 3rd in the nation for pea and lentil production.

“We call this a Farm Bill, but it really is a jobs bill,” said McGreevy, the U.S. Dry Pea & Lentil Council CEO. “As a farmer, we are thrilled to have the 2014 Farm Bill passed.”                                                                

The Farm Bill was signed into law on February 7. Cantwell has been a leader in the push for passage of the Farm Bill that supports agriculture jobs in Washington and across the nation. In 2012, she and Senator Mike Johanns (R-NE) led a bipartisan letter with 44 senators urging action on a Farm Bill.

Chickpea acreage in Washington state has exploded from fewer than 10,000 acres in the year 2000 to nearly 80,000 acres in 2012. A main driver of increased demand for chickpeas in the last decade has been increased demand for hummus. Retail sales of hummus are projected to have increased to $250 million in 2013, up from $192 million in 2007 and $5 million in 1997.

Washington state has 1,000 farm families producing pulse crops. The value of pea, lentil and chickpea shipments handled via the ports of Seattle and Tacoma reached nearly $130 million in 2011 – up from roughly $5 million in 2001.

The Farm Bill also includes Cantwell’s Pulse Health Initiative, which would support $25 million per year over five years in pulse crop health research to help increase public demand and drive job growth. The research would look into the health and nutrition benefits of pulse crops, including their ability to reduce obesity and associated chronic diseases. The initiative would support technical expertise to help food companies use nutrient-dense pulse crops in their products as well as establish an educational program to encourage the consumption and production of pulse crops.