While Congress backtracks, California schools move ahead with healthier meals

Children in many school districts in Santa Barbara County enjoy healthy lunches cooked from scratch. Photo courtesy of the Orfalea Foundations

Children in many school districts in Santa Barbara County enjoy lunches cooked from scratch. Photo courtesy of the Orfalea Foundations

A week after Congress backtracked on some key components of landmark school nutrition legislation, nutrition advocates are saying that the battle for healthy school food needs to be fought district by district, along the lines of what several California districts are already doing.

Last year, Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which required school meals to have more whole grains, fruits and vegetables and less salt and fewer calories in an effort to combat childhood obesity and the early onset of diabetes in children.

But last week a Senate and House conference committee, under pressure from some food industry lobbyists, blocked implementation of some of the new regulations. As things currently stand, the tomato sauce on pizza will count as a full serving of a vegetable and potatoes (typically french fries) can be served every day instead of restricted to two days.

“The federal government is living in some alternate universe while America’s kids grow sicker and fatter in the real world,” said Amy Kalafa, author of a book on the subject titled Lunch Wars. “This is just another example of why we need to fight this battle on the local level.”

But in many school cafeterias around the state, including Los Angeles Unified, Yuba City Unified, and 14 districts in Santa Barbara County, what the federal government does has less relevance because of local initiatives already underway. In those districts, salad bars, cooking from scratch, and eating local, organic produce are already on the menu.

In August, in a major new initiative, LAUSD chef Mark Baida implemented a new lunch menu providing more nutritious meals. In Yuba City, New York–trained chef David Heggard has created food courts on the high school campus that offer meals cooked from scratch, such as barbecues each day and stir-fry in the Chinese restaurant.

One of the most notable examples of schools serving up healthier meals — and making them profitable at the same time — is in Santa Barbara County. Fourteen school districts are participating in s’Cool Food, a 10-year initiative supported by the Orfalea Foundation, a Santa Barbara–focused philanthropy started by Paul Orfalea, the founder of Kinko’s.

Project director Kathleen de Chadenèdes and her staff determined that the main obstacles to schools offering healthy food were a lack of cooking equipment and untrained cafeteria staff. So s’Cool Food set up “cooking camps,” run by chefs, to show cafeteria staff how to cook from scratch. And then the project provided these staff with the equipment they needed to put into practice what they had learned.

With these initial costs footed by the Orfalea Foundation, districts have been able to operate in the black. Nancy Weiss is a chef and director of the Department of Nutrition for Santa Barbara School Districts, which includes Santa Barbara Elementary School District and Santa Barbara Secondary School District. A little more than half of the elementary school children receive free or reduced-price meals, and about 30% of the secondary students do.

Weiss says she was able to turn a “heat and serve” school meals program that was losing money into a homemade food enterprise with a budget surplus. The main ways she has saved money are by eliminating middlemen in purchasing food and by focusing staff time on cooking. These strategies include:

  • Buying pre-cut meat and poultry directly from the U.S. Agriculture Department’s co-op in Petaluma instead of buying the same USDA meat from a distributor after it has been processed by a food company. For example, she uses pre-cut poultry to make barbecued chicken instead of buying frozen chicken nuggets. When she took over, the district was spending about $400,000 on processed food. This year, the price is down to about $10,000, she said.
  • Buying organic produce from local farmers. Before Weiss took over, the district was buying a case of 24 lettuce heads that were not organic at a cost of about $22 or higher, depending on the weather and the scarcity of the product. She now gets a case of just-picked organic lettuce for a guaranteed price of $11. “We can lock in the price because the farmers know that all our dollars are focused on them.”
  • Serving what is in season. Weiss says she and her staff explain to kids that they better enjoy their plums now because it will be a year before they return. This is one of the many ways, she says, that lunch can be used to educate children.
  • Buying directly from manufacturers. Many of the students in her district are Latinos, so tortillas are important. She buys them directly from a manufacturer in Oxnard. A pack of 60 tortillas costs $1.07 compared with $2.25 through a grocery distributor.
  • Saving staff time and reducing waste by eliminating wrapped, individualized portions. Students can put food directly on their trays, which have sections for milk, utensils, and food. In the past, food service staff would, for example, put fruit cocktail in cups, put the lid on the cups, and then hand the cups to the kids. Now kids simply choose the fresh fruit they want from the salad bar.

Another district in Santa Barbara County, Goleta Union, is saving money and reducing waste by eliminating most of the Styrofoam dishes, all straws (kids just drink from the milk cartons), plastic utensils (kids use metal ones that are then collected and washed), and all individually wrapped condiments. Instead, schools provide condiment stations or squeeze bottles at the end of the serving line.

Another way to raise revenue for the program is to appeal to adults, says Goleta Union’s Food Service Director Sharon Baird. The breakfast menu is so appetizing, she says, that parents who drop their kids off at school often stay—and pay. Breakfast includes entrées such as homemade hot oatmeal, granola, homemade whole-grain muffins, fruit smoothies, and a yogurt parfait with toppings customers can choose, such as diced fruit or granola. Each day, she also offers a special item, such as French toast, waffles, or a breakfast sandwich or burrito.

And by adding salad bars at every school in the elementary district, Baird has attracted teachers and other staff as paying customers. The salad bar approach also encourages children to try new foods, she says, because they have the freedom to choose.

Although the Santa Barbara districts have the huge advantage of receiving philanthropic support, other districts can find cost-savings ways to move toward healthier eating, nutrition advocates say. All districts can take advantage of their purchasing power to obtain healthier food at lower costs, they say, and think creatively about how best to use staff time and resources.

“Districts, large and small, have found opportunities not only to feed kids healthier and better tasting food, but also to connect students and their community to a more local, visible and accessible food system,” author Kalafa said. “Why wait for Congress to dictate? The more model programs we can create, the more we can demonstrate that this could be the norm for all.”

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5 Responses to “While Congress backtracks, California schools move ahead with healthier meals”

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  1. sajjad ahmad on Dec 14, 2011 at 12:37 pm12/14/2011 12:37 pm

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    Acting on behalf of 38,000 magnet and special-education students, Los Angeles Unified will file suit today in federal court challenging state budget cuts that wipe out the district’s $38million busing program for the rest of the school year.

  2. Anon on Nov 29, 2011 at 6:30 pm11/29/2011 6:30 pm

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    There’s another side to this issue that is ignored by this article: the fact that the proposed federal regulations would have been so overbearing that it would have gotten in the way of best practices. Let’s take salad bars as an example. The federal regs included inflexible serving size definitions. According to school districts’ testimony at a congressional hearing, if a student made a salad using 3 orange wedges – when a full fruit serving is defined as 4 orange wedges – and a full cup of fresh spring mix – when a full serving is defined as 1 ½ cups – the salad would not have qualified as a reimbursable meal under the new federal regulations. That’s just one example of how proposals would have increased the cost and gotten in the way of serving healthy food at schools.

  3. Anna Apoian on Nov 29, 2011 at 2:14 pm11/29/2011 2:14 pm

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    At Hawthorne School District,we are proud to serve safe and healthful food provided to us through nationally recognized companies or smaller, local companies that provide us with precooked entrees, whole grain breads, and other products. We balance the prepared items with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables on our produce bars daily, and 1% or nonfat milk to round off the meal. I do not know when food became the enemy, but we need to rethink this mindset.

    The food vendors have been diligent in providing low fat, lower sodium food products over the years. They have been quite flexible in changing their formulas to comply with regulations. Yes, we are all still working on improving our fare, but it is tiring to hear of these business people being thrown under the bus. They are a necessary asset in feeding our children.

    Manufacturers now also have “clean labels” where the ingredient is simply “beef” or “chicken”. Why wouldn’t I want to purchase a precooked item while I am serving a student population of 10,000? The companies can cook the food more efficiently and cost effectively than we can at our District, with union labor. They can better ensure food safety as well. Just because something is cooked from scratch does not make it healthier or more cost effective.

    In addition, as a food service director, I am to have three days supply of emergency food in case of a disaster. Raw meat is not going to help feed people in dire need. A precooked chicken patty is edible, even if there is no cooking fuel.

    And although I agree that tomato paste and baked french fries should not count as the only vegetable offered, it is certainly not good practice to limit or infer that any food is “bad”. The USDA reinforces counting tomato paste or potato as a vegetable by eliminating the Nutrient Standard Menu Planning option. Our District will be going backwards to an old method of planning menus, Food Based Menu Planning. Which means we will be adding breads to our menus, and counting paste as a vegetable.

    I cannot believe our nation is stuck on such a small part of the new regulations. My assignment as a food service director and registered dietitian is to feed 10,000 students, two nutrient-dense meals a day, on a very limited budget, to be eaten in a short time, and to be mindful of the taxpayers footing the bill. It is not to provide the perfect meal. Organic fare on $2.74 a meal, and 45% of that reimbursement is labor cost???? I think not. Not only do we as Americans need nutrition lessons, I fear we need math lessons as well.

  4. Eric Premack on Nov 29, 2011 at 10:36 am11/29/2011 10:36 am

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    Peabody Charter School in Santa Barbara has been running a fresh, home-cooked, self-sustaining food services program since 1994. Chef Laurel Lyle makes extensive use of organic ingredients, many locally-sourced, to provide tasty and nutritious meals. Teachers and students actually like the food and parents often come to school and pay to eat with their kids. This YouTube video captures it:

    Interestingly, Peabody acquired much of its original kitchen equipment on the cheap when the school district abandoned school-based food prep and shifted to a central kitchen model.

    While more support from Congress would be nice, Peabody has demonstrated that attitude, creativity, and passionately-focused staff are key.

  5. Bea on Nov 29, 2011 at 9:35 am11/29/2011 9:35 am

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    Belonging to one of the districts in California that has moved to fresh, local, healthier food, I can say that it *will* take support from Congress to sustain and expand this movement. We are able to do this by subsidizing our food service budget from the general fund. That is not sustainable. We were able to upgrade our central kitchen from a re-heat to a scratch cooking facility with grants. That is not sustainable – there are no additional funds to upgrade the school kitchens for bulk service. Santa Barbara had the advantage of private investment. That is not a model available to all districts in California (certainly not ours).

    We’re doing what we can with the resources we have — for now. Until Congress acts to increase meal reimbursements, unleashes itself from “big food” and provides funds for facility renovations to restore scratch-cooking capabilities (and training), then the movement toward fresh healthy food will continue as it has: minimally.

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