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Smart Food School lunches make a change for the fresher

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Posted: Thursday, November 22, 2001 12:00 am | Updated: 10:40 pm, Fri May 17, 2013.

Last week, the students at Fremont Elementary School in Salinas lined up at a brand new child-sized salad bar and filled their trays with fresh lettuce, spinach, applesauce and carrots.

Suzanne du Verrier, food service director for the Alisal Union Elementary School District, says the salad bar''s first day was a booming success.

"I''m a little blown away, they''re doing so well with it," she says. "The first day they probably took more food than any of them could eat--we knew that might happen at first--and staff was saying, ''You don''t have to take some of everything!'' We''re very, very happy."

Why fresh vegetables should be a novelty at a school in the nation''s Salad Bowl is a modern riddle. Some of the children who heaped lettuce-mix on their trays last week undoubtedly have relatives who picked the lettuce. But they have never before been able to eat locally grown salad at school. Nor have the students in any other public school in the Salinas Valley or on the Monterey Peninsula. Such is the disconnect engendered by an industrial agriculture system.

The Fremont Elementary salad bar came about because of a $420,000 Nutritional Network Grant, available from the California Department of Agriculture only to schools with a high percentage of low-income kids--who are at much higher risk of obesity than children of more affluent families. (Thirteen percent of Monterey County''s children 12 and younger are classified as obese, which puts them at risk of heart disease and diabetes.)

Du Verrier is crossing her fingers for approval of a second grant to do four more salad bars and more classroom education.

"If we can get to them before they go to middle school," she says, "we can make a big difference."

Similar changes are afoot in a handful of programs throughout the nation''s school cafeterias.

Last year the United States Department of Agriculture created the Food System Project, with five pilot programs nationwide, to support schools'' direct purchase of produce from local farmers. Several other "farm-to-school" programs have gained a foothold in California, most without benefit of USDA funding.

The Santa Monica Municipal Unified School District buys the produce for all its schools from six local farmers. Districts in Ventura County and Davis have pilot projects in place for similar programs. Pajaro Valley Unified in Santa Cruz County is in the process of locating local apple farmers to supply fruit to its schools.

In the 16-school Berkeley Unified School District, food purchasers have taken it one step further, buying organic produce whenever possible and purchasing veggies primarily from local farmers. One Berkeley school, Willard Elementary, even serves lettuce and carrots from the school garden.

Proponents of farm-to-school programs cite several advantages of buying produce from local farmers. Typically, nutrition is first on the list. Prevention of obesity is only one benefit to eating better foods; recent studies show that children also learn more readily when they''re properly nourished.

But instead of providing more and more healthy meals, schools locally and nationwide have gone from bad to worse. Coke machines are common in school hallways. Several schools districts, including Monterey Peninsula Unified, have established franchises with fast-food chains, guaranteeing that students will get too much fat, too much sugar, and not enough that''s fresh and wholesome.

To combat this trend, during the last session of the California legislature, the California Teachers Association poured considerable time and resources into advancing Senate Bill 19, originally conceived to fight the encroachment of fast food and vending machines in schools. Ultimately the bill was gutted and, though it passed, it guarantees no funds for the commendable programs it encourages.

Still, the teachers'' support of the bill speaks of a burgeoning awareness among educators of the importance of good food.

The farm-to-schools advocates also point to freshness as an advantage. Like anyone else, kids will sooner eat a sweet, crisp apple than a mushy one, and that makes all the difference in forming kids'' ideas about good food.

"Freshness is a quality that we''ve almost completely lost the ability to recognize," says Janet Brown of the Center for Ecoliteracy in Berkeley, the think-tank that worked with Berkeley''s school district to revamp its food policy.

Brown adds that buying fresh produce from local farmers is ecologically healthier, too.

"As the distance opens up between field and table," she says, "all the non-renewables pour in: pesticides, fungicides, waxes, cold storage, shrink-wrap, long-distance transport. What we''re really subsidizing is the petroleum industry."

Kathleen Nolan, a nutrition educator for UC Cooperative Extension, says that farm-fresh produce is tremendously more healthful than is food from another time-zone.

"A lot of nutrients, especially water-soluble vitamins like vitamin C, start degrading the minute the plant is pulled out of the ground," Nolan says. "So clearly if you pick a radish out of the ground and eat it right there, it''s the best."

Connecting schools to local farms provides a benefit to local farmers, too. Reggie Knox of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers says farm-to-school programs keep local economies healthy and preserve rapidly vanishing farmland. "We''re trying to build a local food system and support local entrepreneurship," he says.

Knox likes the idea of introducing kids to the farmers who provide the food they eat. "If you have a farmer come into the classroom with some carrots, anybody will get excited about that," he says. "It''s basically a myth that little kids don''t eat vegetables. It''s how they''re socialized."

Raising the Salad Bar

Where schools have planted gardens, they''ve tapped into children''s need for a connection to living things. Where they have brought nutrition education into the classroom, their message has spread throughout entire communities as children ask parents to buy grapes and bananas at the grocery store.

Christine Moss coordinates one such program: Monterey County''s Project Leaders Encouraging Activity and Nutrition (Project LEAN), designed to combat the alarming incidence of obesity in California''s children. Kids here are about 25 percent more likely to be overweight than kids elsewhere in the United States.

Moss is hopeful about fighting obesity and promoting good health through new concepts about school nutrition. When all the elements of a nutrition curriculum come together, she says, something magical happens.

"That apple in children''s hands, when they understand the process of how it was grown, becomes so much more than something they leave on the buffet line," she says. "It just becomes more meaningful. And of course it''s healthier when it''s grown 10 minutes away rather than trucked in from Idaho."

For du Verrier and her fellow food-service directors throughout the county, farm-to-school programs have another very compelling feature: they fortify the bottom line.

"What a lot of people don''t realize is school districts expect food service departments to be solvent," she says. "They don''t want to put general fund money into food service, so we have to run like a business."

Du Verrier manages a $3 million annual budget that feeds 7,000 kids a day, some of whom eat more than one meal at school. To help bring in extra money, her kitchen contracts with county Social Services to feed 200 needy seniors each day.

Du Verrier also hopes the big growers in the area will give the schools a price break.

"Here we are in the heart of the Salad Bowl, with multimillionaires all around," she says, "and I''m paying top dollar for produce. Why can''t they help the schools? I''m not asking anyone to give food away, but why not give it to me at cost? If we get kids to eat their fruits and veggies and they go home and say, ''Hey Mom, buy this stuff,'' isn''t that free advertising for them?"

Good fresh food can mean increased sales, and that could make a real budgetary difference, du Verrier notes-- especially in high schools.

"This is a captive audience," she says, gesturing at table of third-graders at Creekside Elementary, where the kids are eating piroshkis, tater tots, mixed veggies and pears. "But you know what it''s like when you''re a teenager. You''re picky, you don''t like anything."

High schools wind up contracting with fast-food providers like Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Domino''s for two reasons: the conglomerates sell to school districts for cheap, and the familiar brands lure students into eating on campus, so that food service departments can keep up the "participation" they so desperately need in order to stay solvent.

This is where data from Santa Monica Municipal School District gets very interesting to people like du Verrier.

Tracie Payton, food purchaser for the school district, says the Farmer''s Market Salad Bar is cheaper than hot lunches--and it has increased student participation in school lunches at all the schools.

The district primed the pump with assemblies, classroom presentations and taste-tests soliciting student opinion, and it worked. The initial interest, especially at the elementary school level, was overwhelming.

"The moment we introduced the salad bar we saw participation increase as much as 1700 percent at some sites," she says. "The secondary sites were a bit more challenging. We had to feature a special ''bar week'' at John Adams Middle School just to get the students to come and try the salad bar, so one day we featured the ''Build Your Own Dessert Bar,'' ''Build Your Own Chef Salad Bar,'' ''Try the Salad Bar/Get A Free CD.'' We gave away cassette tapes and even featured the California Sushi Academy--that was a big hit!! As a result we did get more students to come in and participate."

A Growing Trend

At John Steinbeck Elementary School in Salinas, students from kindergarten through fifth grade can go to the Growing Science Center and play in the dirt. Different classes have plots on which to grow organic lettuce, carrots, greens, tomatoes and even apples and grapes. An amphitheater next to the garden provides a place for teachers to organize classes. Sometimes at lunch the older kids go there to read.

"They absolutely love being outside in the garden working," says Gordon Mayfield, a teacher who runs the garden. "Kids that don''t perform well in traditional classroom settings are sometimes the ones doing wonderfully in the garden. They have an outlet for that energy."

When the fruits and vegetables mature, Mayfield says, the teachers may bring them into the classroom and prepare a salad. This, says Department of Education Nutrition Services Division Director Ann M. Evans, is an important link in the cycle of nutrition education.

"Kids learn to care for another form of life and learn to nurture themselves through that," she says.

The combination of school garden, fresh produce and food education can be a potent one, she says. "There''s a lot of value to a consistent message. If you go to the trouble to present the food pyramid, and at lunch they see something recognizable from that, it''s simpler for them to get the message. They know that what the school is teaching in the classroom verbally it thinks is important enough to do. That kind of authenticity of message becomes a hidden curriculum. You learn it without thinking about it."

Both Evans and Janet Brown maintain that getting kids to choose healthy food is really only a matter of exposing them to it and presenting it attractively.

"If they start with a seed and raise it themselves and plant it and continue to tend it, and at some time are able to pull off that cherry tomato and put it in their mouth, a light bulb goes on," Brown says. "And the next time they walk into a salad bar and see a cherry tomato, they select it."

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