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California High Schools Scrap 'Plastic Foods' in Favor of Real Nutrition

In Escondido, school chefs are now cooking 10,000 meals a day from scratch, and seeing academic and behavioral improvement as a result.
 
 
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It’s lunchtime at San Pasqual High, and students file out of the cafeteria carrying trays of food laden with items that would have made First Lady Michelle Obama proud: a southwestern salad of black beans, salsa, mixed green lettuce, corn, shredded chicken, a carton of milk and baked corn chips. Those who had opted for the oriental salad had pieces of fresh mandarin oranges, rice noodles and shredded chicken. Most every tray contained a green organic apple, as well.

“I’ve been eating this kind of food in school since I’ve been a freshman,” said San Pascal High junior student Angel Bravo, 18, during an Oct. 23 ethnic media briefing here sponsored by The California Endowment and organized by New America Media. “And the food [becomes] the energy that I need to be a football player.”

Menus vary each day, but students in the five high schools in the Escondido Union High School District (EUHSD), which includes San Pasqual High, Valley High, Orange Glen High, Escondido High and Escondido Adult High, get lunches and breakfasts that are packed with nutrition, low in salt and sugar and free of trans fat, meeting federal nutritional requirements.

The EUHSD serves a total of 10,000 meals each day, the bulk of which are free or at a reduced price. Orange Glen High and Valley High, both of which have a high Hispanic and African American student population, have between 80 and 85 percent participation in the free or reduced-price meals program, while only 40 percent of students at San Pasqual qualify.

But the district is proud that the overall participation in its breakfast and lunch programs is 77 percent, compared to the 20 percent participation rate of most California high school districts, said Pamela Lambert, the EUHSD’s nutrition services director, citing a California Department of Education figure. The reason for the discrepancy?

“Our food is so good,” Lambert asserted proudly.

Most school districts nationwide are now making sure their students get nutritional meals, thanks to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 championed by the First Lady. Of the 6.2 million students enrolled in California public schools in the 2010-2011 school year, 3.47 million were eligible for free or reduced price meals, according to the California Department of Education.

A report released last year by the Food Research and Action Center, a national organization that is committed to ending poverty-related hunger in the United States, shows that one in five San Diegans are struggling to put food on their family's table.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was passed to curb runaway rates of childhood obesity, diabetes and other health problems among children. Studies show that an estimated one in three California children is obese or overweight, which places them at increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Under the legislation, which heralded some dramatic changes to the 66-year-old National School Lunch Program created by Congress to address malnutrition in schools, schools must meet nutritional benchmarks, including limiting fats and serving enough calories. Schools are required to serve more fruits and vegetables every day and boost whole-grain products. Starting in 2014, lower sodium levels will be required, not just recommended.

The program is federally assisted, and schools can choose to participate. Those that do, receive cash subsidies and foods provided by the US Department of Agriculture, factors that allow some school districts, like the EUHSD, to even provide some organic fruits and vegetables to its students, said Lambert.

But when it comes to healthful meals, EUHSD has been way ahead of the curve because it switched to a more nutritional diet back in 2007. So few or no changes had to be made in their cafeteria menus to comply with the new legislation, said Lambert, a long time registered nutritionist and dietitian, who was largely responsible for the switch after being turned off by what she called “plastic burritos” and other “plastic foods” that were being served to students.

Lambert was among a number of “Health Happens Heroes” recognized last month by The California Endowment as a school nutrition innovator.

“How can we expect kids to excel academically if we feed them plastic foods,” Lambert asked rhetorically during the briefing.

The bulk of the fruits and vegetables served at her school district are sourced from local farms within a 150-mile radius, ensuring their freshness. And EUHSD is one of few districts that “scratch cooks,” rather than purchasing prepared foods,” Lambert said.

Parke Troutman, public policy and advocacy manager of the San Diego Hunger Coalition, said it’s important that students get healthful food on campus because school meals are “an anti-hunger program."

And he noted: “It’s not just about filling stomachs, but the food has an impact on learning, health and behavior.”

Parent Adrianna Paulson said her high school-going daughter, “a picky eater,” has influenced the way she now cooks at home.

“When I make salad, she tells me to “make it the way it’s made in school,” Paulson said.

The federal reimbursement rate is $2.86 for each free lunch served, to cover the cost of food, labor and overhead. Many public health advocates agree that the program is under-funded, but say schools need to innovate and find new solutions to provide healthier meals.

“We have to be creative and negotiate with our vendors,” Lambert said.

At EUHSD schools, most of the food items, she said, are made on the single four-burner stoves each school has, and in limited prep space. It’s a challenge, but it’s paying off rich rewards.

“When I see higher attendance, better academic performance and fewer nurse visits, I am ecstatic,” asserted Lambert, noting that more EUHSD teachers too are now eating the school lunch.

Viji Sundaram is the Healthcare Editor at New America Media.