The Golden Carrot Awards: Celebrating Healthful School Lunches

The Physicians Committee

The Golden Carrot Awards: Celebrating Healthful School Lunches


The Golden Carrot Awards, established in 2004, recognize food service teams doing exceptional work to improve the healthfulness of school lunches. The Physicians Committee looks for programs that encourage students to eat more fresh fruits, vegetables, and plant-based entrées for improved health and disease prevention.

Central Park School for Children

Central Park School for Children in Durham, N.C., wins the grand prize in the 2016 Golden Carrot Awards for serving its K-8 students a made-from-scratch menu packed with daily plant-based entrées.

Popular entrée items include savory whole grain Pad Thai topped with crispy tofu, soybeans, baby corn, and stir-fried vegetables; Great Greek Pasta salad with Tuscan marinated tomatoes and grilled green beans; and black bean tacos with lettuce, pico de gallo, and mango tango sauce.

Central Park School for Children gets students excited about eating healthfully by offering an outstanding nutrition education curriculum. Students participate in gardening and cooking activities, where they learn about the health benefits of plant-based foods. The school even involves students in recipe creation and taste tests before debuting new entrées. Central Park School for Children makes it clear that eating healthfully can be fun: Students created an album of music, available on iTunes, called Central Park Wellness Raps, which includes songs like “Carrots Instead of Fries.”


Alachua Learning Academy

Alachua Learning Academy, a public charter school in Alachua, Fla., serves its K-8 students an entirely vegetarian, made-from-scratch menu. Popular entrée items include black bean chili with brown rice and salad, minestrone soup with potatoes and carrots, and lentil soup with romaine salad and freshly baked bread from the school’s kitchen.

The school prioritizes health and wellness by incorporating nutrition education into the curriculum. All students at Alachua Learning Academy participate in permaculture classes, where they learn to prepare the ground, weed, plant, and harvest fruits and vegetables. Middle school students participate in culinary arts classes, where they learn to cook mainly raw plant-based recipes.

Integrity Academy

Every day, Integrity Academy in Austin, Texas, serves its preschool through fifth grade students a fully vegan, organic, and made-from-scratch menu packed with fresh, whole foods. Lunches are served family style, with students and teachers eating together daily. Each meal starts with soup and a green salad, followed by a hot plate with grains, legumes, and vegetables topped with a seed-based sauce.

A typical meal includes red lentil vegetable soup and garden greens with pumpkin seeds, followed by soft vegetable tacos with guacamole and cilantro. Another consists of butternut squash soup and salad with almond mint dressing, followed by brown rice and kidney beans with sautéed vegetables.

Integrity Academy students participate in afternoon nutrition classes, where they learn to cook their own healthy snacks. Typical snacks include fruit rainbows, banana “sushi,” and blueberry smoothies. The school also regularly hosts guest lecturers to educate parents and the general public about nutrition.

Ithaca City School District

Ithaca City School District in Ithaca, N.Y., serves 5,000 K-12 students a menu packed with fresh, locally grown ingredients and daily vegetarian entrées. The district offers nutrient-packed, cholesterol-free vegan entrées that were developed by the New York Coalition for Healthy School Food and popular local chef Wynnie Stein from Ithaca’s Moosewood Restaurant.

These entrée items include whole-grain “Pasta Fazool” with beans and locally grown seasonal vegetables; Tuscan Tomato Pie, a blend of Great Northern beans, tomatoes, spinach, and spices on top of whole-wheat pizza crust; and Mrs. Patel’s Rajma, red kidney beans, gravy, and spices served with rice and broccoli, developed by Mrs. Patel herself—a local Ithaca elementary school assistant teacher.  

The schools also involve students in the school lunch program by integrating nutrition education into the curriculum, testing new fruits and vegetables and learning about their health benefits in the classroom, and allowing teens to help design nutrition education opportunities for younger students.

Many students also participate in the Youth Farm Project’s Farm to School Program, in which elementary-age students and teenagers grow and harvest fresh fruit and vegetables on farms and then prepare meals in the school district’s central kitchen.

Lee County School District

Lee County School District in Fort Myers, Fla., serves more than 54,000 K-12 students a menu filled with fresh fruits, vegetables, and daily vegetarian entrées. More than half of the county’s schools cultivate fresh produce in their own gardens, while many schools also offer daily salad bars. Every Friday, each school in the district participates in “Lean and Green Fridays,” where the main entrée is vegetarian and paired with a green vegetable, like steamed broccoli or fresh green beans.

Popular Lean and Green meals include pasta spirals topped with marinara sauce and Beyond Meat meatless crumbles and a Fiesta Bowl with vegetables, beans, and salsa.

Through the district’s gardening program, students at many of the schools learn to plant, grow, and harvest the produce that makes its way onto their lunch trays. Students also have a say in what they eat: The district performs taste tests of new menu items and surveys students annually about their preferences.  A mobile nutrition unit called the Healthy Living Lab travels throughout the district for week-long visits with schools to discuss the health benefits of eating a nutritious diet. Several elementary schools also participate in the Fresh Fruits and Vegetable Program, which introduces students to new fruits and vegetables in the classroom.

Honorable Mention: Loudoun County Public Schools

Loudoun County Public Schools in Loudoun, Va., earns an honorable mention for prioritizing plant-based menu items and encouraging 78,500 students to eat fruits and vegetables. Menu items include a bahn mi flatbread, vegetable tacos made with Beyond Meat, vegetable nachos, hummus sandwiches, fresh fruit, and self-serve unlimited fruit and vegetable bars in secondary schools.

The district encourages healthy eating by involving students in the school lunch process. Students learn to grow healthy foods in school gardens, sample fresh fruits and vegetables on “Taste it Thursdays” and “Fear Factor Fridays,” and receive stickers for sampling new healthy foods. Students also participate in taste tests before new meals debut on the lunch line.

Extra Credit:

Want to pack your own healthy school lunches? The Physicians Committee’s Karen Smith, R.D., and her two daughters share their favorites in this video: