Out to lunch

Options at lunchtime make students healthy and happy

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Real cheap eats:
A CUSD student lunch at the elementary level costs $1.75 and for reduced meals, 40 cents. The USDA’s National School Lunch Program provides a basic cash reimbursement of $2.24 for free lunches, $1.84 for reduced-price, and $0.21 for paid lunches.

The lunchtime cafeteria scene at Little Chico Creek Elementary looks just like any other across the country and over time. The kids are loud and rambunctious, scarfing down their perfectly measured meals, eager to go out for recess. In fact, one might think that the kids, ranging from first to sixth graders, don’t pay much attention to their lunches at all, except maybe to note with a buddy that something is good or gross.

But these kids are smarter than that. A few fifth graders provided their perspectives on the school lunches:

“The food’s better and healthier for us,” said Sierra Tuitele.

“The lunches last year looked disgusting,” said Ty Davis.

“And they made us take it even if we didn’t want it,” continued Julia Hughes, referring to questionable-looking enchiladas from the previous school year.

“Last year we didn’t have choices,” added Jazmin Ramirez with a tone of resentment.

These “choices” are one of the changes taking place for the 2005-'06 school year thanks to new Nutrition Services Director Brenda Padilla, who’s worked in this line of business for 18 years, but has been with Chico Unified School District less than a month.

Photo By Tom Angel

Padilla wants students to have more options when it comes to what they’re eating. Each day students can pick between two entrees (on this particular day it’s chicken nuggets or a packaged bean burrito), get any two fruits or vegetables, crackers or animal crackers, an 8-oz bottle of water ( the students said they recycle the plastic to raise money), and orange juice or one of three milk varieties. Not too shabby considering that memories of school lunches for most people bring back cringe-worthy thoughts of mystery meat and dry coleslaw.

Yet, while the students at Little Chico Creek agreed that the food is more appealing, Padilla hopes to improve it even more. Currently, CUSD Nutrition Services is providing 2,000 to 2,300 lunches a day for all the elementary schools. “We can do better than that by seeing what the students like,” she said.

Though state and federal regulations prohibit competition for food dollars in elementary schools, the same is not true for secondary schools. On open campuses, like those in Chico, high school students can leave campus for lunch, which means they may not be getting the appropriate nutrition.

“We want to find out what students are flocking to off campus and try to provide that [in the schools],” Padilla said. Even the students who stay on campus to eat have the option of vending machines, outside vendor carts and student stores. (The CUSD is also struggling to lower the amount by which food services encroaches on its general fund.)

“I’m used to providing a full meal,” Padilla said, and so for students who choose to purchase pizza, for example, carrots would be required to balance out the meal.

With the growing consciousness of child obesity, proper nutrition in schools is coming under closer scrutiny. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides most of the cash subsidies to CUSD (along with a minimal amount coming from the state) and thus it is the federal government that sets up nutritional guidelines and menu options. The USDA requires that schools participating in the National School Lunch Program provide one-third of the daily nutritional value to students through lunches. However, Padilla said, “none of the students are forced to pick up anything they don’t want.”

At Little Chico Creek, cook Joan Whaley said that food is made more “kid-friendly” and as a result students eat more of what they should. She also said that student nutrition is regulated by an adult at the end of food line who makes sure students have gotten all of what they need.

"[The students] have to make choices and making the right choices is where we try to help,” said Padilla.

The kids apparently like the choices, as well as the idea of making choices. In fact, the only complaint wasn’t even geared toward food. What bothered the students is that they don’t get to sit wherever they want.

The overall consensus is that CUSD is doing something right; at least judging from the first graders remarks that the food is “good,” or some of the older kids agreeing that if they don’t have much money, the cafeteria is better than a restaurant.