District leaders: Sacramento students eating healthier

Unlike the rest of the country’s kids

As Thanksgiving draws families together from across the nation to feast on turkey and pumpkin pie, it turns out students in Sacramento's public school system have already been eating about as well as anybody else.

Schools, prompted by federal regulations and student demand, are serving better and more nutritious food than they have in decades, according to Brenda Padilla, nutrition services director at Sacramento City Unified School District.

She says the 47,000 children in the city’s school system are making their own salads, sampling new fruits and vegetables every week, eating brown rice instead of white and opting for vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free meals.

“I think the kids have become a lot more sophisticated in what they want to eat in my years doing this,” said Padilla, who began working in the district nearly 30 years ago.

The improved eating patterns of school children probably stems in part from changing preferences. However, federal law has actually mandated that students be offered better food.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, passed in 2010, says that children in American schools are served minimum amounts of fresh greens and produce, legumes and whole grains while eating less sodium and trans fats.

The law says a half-cup of veggies and fruit is the minimum a child may have per meal, though Padilla says there is rarely a problem coaxing kids to serve themselves plenty of produce and she says she has had to boost her orders for produce to keep the buffet troughs full.

At local high schools, in fact, students even objected recently to the meager rations of veggies at the breakfast hour, Padilla says.

“The kids wanted more vegetarian items in the morning, so we started offering yogurt and a build-your-own burrito bar,” she said. On the other hand, she notes, barbecue lunch days are still a big hit.

School gardening programs are helping change the way kids eat, according to Gabe Ross, chief of communications for the Sacramento City Unified School District. He says roughly a third of the city’s public schools have vegetable patches and fruit trees on the premises. The students work in these gardens and learn the art of growing food. While produce grown here is eaten, it doesn’t wind up in school meals.

“Sometimes the kids go home with a brown paper bag full of zucchini and tomatoes, but it’s not enough quantity to take to scale, at least not at this point,” Ross said. He says the garden program is aimed at educating kids on how to make healthy choices and hopefully sample foods they wouldn’t have tried before.

While Sacramento’s students seem to be embracing more healthful foods, children nationwide may not be.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an associate professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University in Illinois, has spent years studying the effects of school meal programs on children’s health. She says that the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act seems to have turned many children away from school meals.

“Participation in the school meals program has declined,” she said, referring to the five years since the act took effect.

Most Americans are currently overweight, with a third of the country’s population clinically qualifying as obese. That obesity rate stands for children, too, and Schanzenbach says that school lunch programs in the past seemed to be contributing to obesity in children.

Though California’s children are on average thinner than those in much of the Midwest, health officials have said that nationwide, unless eating patterns improve, America’s children could become the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents.

SCUSD has yet to build a central kitchen to streamline healthier foods, but, for now, seems to be on a path toward improvement.

“In my first years doing this, I can’t remember seeing a fresh fruit or vegetable here,” said Padilla, recalling the 1980s.