Reinventing the school lunch

Advocates for healthful school food show how vast improvements are possible in the CUSD

Healthy Lunch & Lifestyle Project kitchen manager/chef Emily Zimmerman (right) and prep worker Kristen Loch put the finishing touches on healthful, bento-box-style lunches going out to four Chico schools.

Healthy Lunch & Lifestyle Project kitchen manager/chef Emily Zimmerman (right) and prep worker Kristen Loch put the finishing touches on healthful, bento-box-style lunches going out to four Chico schools.

photo by Christine G.K. LaPado

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“I feel our children deserve better than to have processed fast food served to them instead of healthy, natural food.”

Speaking was local school-nutrition activist Debra Abbott. She’d just attended a meeting with Chico Unified School District representatives, including Superintendent Kelly Staley, who met at the district office late last month to discuss ways to improve the quality of food served in CUSD cafeterias.

“I want to see substantial change in the food our children are being served, since the schools have become the food source for so many children,” said Abbott, the after-school garden coordinator at Chapman and McManus elementary schools.

Abbott has been involved in an ongoing effort for nearly two years, as part of local group Advocates for Healthy School Communities (see “Local schools, local food,” CN&R, Jan. 22, 2009), and more recently in conjunction with Bridgette Brick-Wells, founder and executive director of Redding’s nonprofit Healthy Lunch & Lifestyle Project Inc., to bring healthier food to local schoolchildren.

“We would all appreciate some changes on some level,” said Abbott, clearly frustrated by the district’s slow-moving response to repeated calls for better school lunches. CUSD officials have routinely cited such things as budget problems and labor-union issues concerning use of volunteers in school cafeterias as impediments to upgrading the quality of the food it serves.

Brick-Wells, said Abbott, is a perfect example of how it can—and should—be done: “She serves healthy foods to children in schools using commodity foods. She does not rely on processed foods.”

Some strides have been made in the district in the last couple of years. Wheat buns and breads baked at the school district’s bakery are now served; brown rice is used in the district’s “Asian orange chicken” entrée; and the tuna salad used in sandwiches is made with a mixture of half mayonnaise and half nonfat yogurt.

Abbott has further recommendations: Reduce the number of times pizza is served weekly from four to one, and eliminate high-fat and sugary foods. Remove chocolate milk, highly processed foods, and any products containing high-fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated fats from district lunch menus. She would also like to see the elimination of such packaged, processed items as Cocoa Puffs, Froot Loops, peanut-butter-and-jelly Uncrustables, corn dogs, tater tots, chicken nuggets and Kellogg’s Crunchmania Cinnamon Bun Graham Snacks.

Abbott is adamant that there is much work to do. She would love to see the meals served at CUSD schools more closely resemble the fresh, healthful fare prepared and served to an increasing number of North State schoolchildren by Brick-Wells’ Healthy Lunch & Lifestyle Project.

Brick-Wells was unable to attend the meeting. It’s too bad, because she would have been able to speak to the success of her endeavor. Now in its third year, Brick-Wells’ organization is responsible for serving healthful breakfasts, lunches and snacks to nine schools—public and private—in the Redding area, from preschool through high school.

This fall, the Healthy Lunch & Lifestyle Project began serving lunches to four Chico schools as well—Chico Christian School, Forest Ranch Charter School, Chico Green School and Sherwood Montessori. The lunches cost $2.50, the same as a CUSD elementary-school lunch.

Brick-Wells’ project is supported by multiple small grants, donations of food from such local suppliers as Lundberg Family Farms, Massa Organics and Prather Ranch, and the use of college interns in the kitchen. Additionally, she rents out her Redding kitchen as a community kitchen, which also provides revenue.

In Chico, the Healthy Lunch & Lifestyle Project shares use of the Italian Guy Catering kitchen in south Chico. A recent late-morning trip to the site found three women busily assembling 130 lunches in bright-blue and black, reusable plastic “bento boxes.” Typical lunch entrées include grilled teriyaki-glazed chicken breast, carrots, onion and broccoli on a bed of brown rice; macaroni and cheese made with whole-wheat noodles and a from-scratch cheese sauce; grilled fresh veggies on a bed of couscous; and lean ground-beef soft tacos made with whole-wheat tortillas. Also, the project offers either 1- or 2-percent milk—no chocolate milk.

On the menu for this particular day, depending on the entrée each school had chosen, was lasagna made from scratch, and healthful peanut butter and homemade strawberry preserves on whole wheat bread, along with sliced cantaloupe and a robust-looking green salad with homemade ranch dressing, croutons and whole-wheat rolls.

The following day, said kitchen manager and Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef Emily Zimmerman, local school kids would be enjoying Asian-style chicken salad made with red and green cabbage, romaine lettuce and a sesame dressing made from scratch, among other eats.

Brick-Wells accomplishes this exemplary food feat partly by using the very same USDA commodity foods supplied to the school district. A main difference, though, is that Brick-Wells does not purchase processed commodity foods. She makes jam from fresh commodity strawberries, for instance, and when she buys commodity chicken, she takes it whole and cooks with it in her kitchen rather than having it sent to a Tyson Foods plant—as CUSD does—to be processed into chicken nuggets.

CUSD cafeterias recently began offering a barbecued baked-chicken dish, made with nonprocessed commodity chicken, on some Fridays, but “the kids aren’t interested in it. That’s the problem,” Tanya Harter, CUSD’s interim nutrition services director, said at the Oct. 25 meeting. She was speaking to Abbott; Maureen Fitzgerald, the school district’s brand-new assistant superintendent for business; recently elected school-board member Eileen Robinson (a candidate at the time); and this reporter.

“We are certainly making progress. It doesn’t happen overnight,” said Staley at one point, citing funding and contractual constraints, among other things. “We have to take baby steps.”

Robinson said she had found during her school-board campaign that “the issue of cafeteria food is more prominently out there than I suspected,” and suggested cooperation on the part of “parents, PTAs, PTOs, the [district’s] Nutrition Services Department and the community” to bring about needed school-lunch changes.

Staley, Fitzgerald and Harter were agreeable to Robinson’s suggestion of a follow-up meeting to include Brick-Wells.

Brick-Wells, interviewed several days later, had much to say on ways the school district might improve the overall nutritional quality of its food, including not offering young children a choice among several sometimes less-than-optimal food items, but rather serving them one healthful lunch.

“I personally do not believe that children under the age of 12 should be given the option of ‘offer versus serve,’ because the schools neither have the labor capacity nor the educational ability at the lunch line to give the instructions to kids to make healthy choices,” said Brick-Wells. “Moms would never leave everything on the table, including dessert, and just walk down the street.

“The current generation of kids is the first generation in the nation’s history with a life expectancy shorter than their parents,” continued Brick-Wells. She went on to cite statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Institutes of Health showing that 30 percent to 50 percent of kids born in 2000 will develop diabetes directly related to poor food habits and lack of physical activity.

“In 2002, obesity-related disease surpassed tobacco as the leading cause of death. … We can’t keep doing what we’re doing and expect a different outcome. It’s crazy.”