Local schools, local food

Advocacy group pushing Chico school district to serve more-healthful food in cafeterias

NUTRITION DISCONNECT<br>Kristen Del Real, the school garden coordinator at Hooker Oak Elementary School, shows first-grader William Klein and second-grader Lily Summerville a cabbage plant. It doesn’t make sense to teach children how to grow their own food and then serve them agribusiness-grown food produced elsewhere, she believes.

Kristen Del Real, the school garden coordinator at Hooker Oak Elementary School, shows first-grader William Klein and second-grader Lily Summerville a cabbage plant. It doesn’t make sense to teach children how to grow their own food and then serve them agribusiness-grown food produced elsewhere, she believes.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Debra Abbott works as an after-school gardening teacher at McManus, Parkview, Rosedale and Citrus elementary schools. Her job is funded by a special grant for low-performing and high-poverty schools. She recently helped some of her students pick lettuce, chard, spinach and carrots from their school garden, showed them how to wash the vegetables, and then helped them prepare fresh lemon vinaigrette to put on the salad she guided them to create.

“All of the kids loved it,” said Abbott of the, garden-to-classroom food. “They said they’d rather eat that than the ‘little fruit pellets’ they [were given at school] for a snack and didn’t eat. These kids want this [fresh] food.”

Abbott describes a “huge disconnect” between what she is teaching children in her gardening program and “the processed food in the cafeteria” that they are eating for breakfast, lunch and snacks. She cited the packaged, sugary cereals and high-fat breakfast entrees such as “sausage on a stick” and “sausage on a biscuit,” and “pizza every day of the week,” as prime examples of school foods that should be reduced or eliminated.

“They could serve Cheerios, Special K or Rice Krispies instead of all those sweet cereals,” said Abbott, “but they’re probably being subsidized by the sweet-cereal industry.”

Abbott is a member of a new organization called Advocates for Healthy School Communities. The group held its second “Change School Lunch” meeting on Jan. 8 at the OPT (Overweight Prevention and Treatment) for Fit Kids office on Mangrove Avenue. The group, which thus far totals nine members, is made up largely of parents, local food educators and school garden teachers—including Maria Venturino, co-owner of the Red Tavern restaurant and parent of two Chico schoolchildren.

Other members include sustainability activist and KZFR programmer Laurie Niles; Kristen Del Real, substitute teacher and school garden coordinator at Hooker Oak Elementary School and mother of two children who attend the school; and Jeremy Miller, president of Chico Food Network, a nonprofit that is working to “foster a local food system that contributes to the long-term viability of farms in our region” and “provide education regarding local food systems,” among other aims.

They are attempting to get the Chico Unified School District to improve the quality of cafeteria food, as well as make progressive, healthful changes to the district’s current wellness policy, which is in the final-draft stage.

The CUSD wellness policy is the result of the Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act that Congress passed in 2004. It mandates that each school district receiving federal funds for its meals program form a wellness committee. That committee must then formulate a policy focusing on the quality of school lunches, breakfasts and after-school snacks, the quality and frequency of physical education, and availability and quality of student instruction concerning diet and health. The policies were to be in effect by the beginning of the 2006 school year.

While CUSD did have such a policy in place in 2006, it was “skeletal” and wasn’t accessible to the public via the CUSD Web site until 2007, reported Niles, and it wasn’t until October 2008 that “the wellness policy was presented to the school board by [CUSD Interim Director of Nutrition Services] Tanya Harter and accepted as a working document.”

As it stands, the eight-page policy reads quite generically, stating, among other things, that meals “will be appealing and attractive to children, be served in clean and pleasant settings, meet and/or exceed nutrition requirements established by local, state and federal statutes and regulations” and “offer a variety of fruits and vegetables.”

While the document states that “schools are encouraged to source fresh fruits and vegetables from local farmers when practicable,” Niles argues that none of the food used is sourced locally. Harter told her and other Advocates members in attendance at a special Dec. 18 CUSD School Wellness Committee meeting that local food was being served, citing the use of local food distributor Pro Pacific Fresh.

“Pro Pacific is not local food,” said Niles. “They are a local distributor of food that comes from elsewhere in the state. … We have local farmers everywhere [in the Chico area]. Why not buy from them?”

Niles also mentioned that her group was told at the Dec. 18 meeting that affordability is a key issue. It is common knowledge that school lunch programs are heavily subsidized by the federal government, resulting in the kinds of pre-packaged, lower-nutrition foods that the group objects to.

In addition to serving locally grown foods in school cafeterias, the Advocacy group recommends changing recess time from after lunch to before lunch so that kids are not in a rush to go out to recess and also will be hungrier when they sit down to eat; eliminating any products containing high-fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil; eliminating processed meat; eliminating brand-name snack foods; eliminating all sweetened and flavored milk, including the ubiquitous chocolate milk; and offering milk substitutions.

They are also seeking written permission to operate a fresh-food pilot lunch program in at least one school, after getting a verbal OK for the proposal at the Dec. 18 meeting from Student Support Services Director Dave Scott.

Del Real, speaking from her experiences as a substitute teacher and parent, emphasizes the long-term implications of an improved wellness policy and, by extension, improved student nutrition. She cites longer student attention span in the classroom, improved test scores and reduced obesity that come with eating fresh, local, low-fat, low-sugar foods.

“They’re given chocolate milk, sugared cereals [for their free school breakfast], and they’re expected to sit down after that—it’s impossible, especially for the young ones,” said Del Real, a vibrant, articulate 33-year-old who has a bachelor’s degree in ag policy and sustainable development.

Del Real lamented the fact that, at Hooker Oak, the school cafeteria had recently added the more popular canned pickles and canned fruit alongside the fresh fruits and vegetables. “In a school,” she observed, “we should be a model—of how to live, how to eat, how to act.”

The Advocates group would also like to see the school district supply them with a “stat sheet” outlining just how much the district spends not only on food, but also on related costs such as the use of disposable trays and refrigeration.

“We want to see their bottom line,” said Abbott, who believes it would be more cost-effective, for instance, to wash dishes than to spend money on hundreds and hundreds of Styrofoam trays daily, and pay for the garbage service to dispose of them.

The Advocates are more than willing to provide the people power to help make their pilot lunch program become a success—through their own brain power and hands-on work, and with the help of local farmers like Jim Miller and rice grower Greg Massa, who are eager to take part.

“Use us,” Niles summed up. “We are people-powered. We’re concerned.”

In a phone interview, Tanya Harter acknowledged that “unprecedented budget cuts for school districts across the state” do affect the school meal program. But, because of the way this district chooses to distribute its budget, the “garden bars” (salad bars), for instance, at all of the elementary schools are fairly unique to CUSD: “Not a lot of schools in the state can have garden bars [because of the way each district has to allot its budget money].”

Harter acknowledged that the district does serve “commodities like [canned] peaches, pears and green beans,” but said that the fruits “are packed in fruit juice, not heavy corn syrup.” She also defended the sausages and hot dogs served as being made of “lean meat … turkey.” As for Del Real’s observation about Hooker Oak adding canned pickles and fruit, Harter said, “That [lunch] person may have underestimated the number of apples she needed.”

As for the Advocates’ proposed pilot program, Harter said, “I think that’s great. If that’s the focus that the community wants to go for, I would embrace it.” She added that she and Dave Scott “need to see all the information” before moving ahead with such an endeavor. “[We say,] ‘Come up with the stats, come up with the dollars behind it, then let’s talk.’ “

Using volunteers, however, to help reduce costs becomes a major union issue, at odds with protecting the interests of food service staff, whose wages average $18 per hour. “You can’t build an ongoing program with volunteers,” she said. “Volunteers—I mean, they can’t even keep the garden program going, because there aren’t enough volunteers.”

In summary, Harter said that “Studies show that kids who eat school lunch eat more fruits and vegetables daily than kids who bring sack lunches, and they get their milk, and the low-fat content.”

She strongly defended the quality of the food served at CUSD schools: “Well, obviously I think it’s great because my [7-year-old] daughter eats it every single day. … She loves it. … I know it’s good for her. I think that says it all.”