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Civil Eats: Its Cool to Eat School Food!

Posted Oct 20 2009 2:57pm

October 20th, 2009 By Victoria Tatum

It was lunchtime at Harbor High School, and the cars were backed up three stories down to the parking lot at the bottom of campus. The thump of the bass resonated from jacked-up trucks and Toyota Forerunners as students tried to break out for a burrito or at Joe’s sub before their afternoon classes started. At the top of the hill on the other side of campus, a throng of teenagers waited to cross over to the gas station that sells slurpies and Hot Cheetos. These students, including my daughter Carly, hadn’t heard that chef Jamie Smith was at that very moment serving noodle bowls with the veggies he’d stir-fried in the Harbor High kitchen.

Jamie is not just flipping broccoli; he’s trying to “make it cool to eat at school.” He knows it is healthier on multiple levels for high school students –not just at Harbor but all across the country– to stay on campus during lunch.

The fare Jamie is serving is not the same school-issued slice of pizza, bag of Doritos, and blue-dye drink of the past years. There were a myriad of reasons for that lunch, including paltry federal subsidies and the Department of Agriculture regulations: fat maximums with no limit on carbohydrates. Thanks to a nationwide movement to fight obesity, those regulations are changing, but for years the chips and sugar drink met the calorie minimums at a bargain price.

We literally sell our kids short if we imagine they only have a taste for junk food. I once found Carly, back when she was in elementary school, in the kitchen making crepes with cheese and olive tapenade as an after-school snack. It shouldn’t have surprised me, since when I lived in Berkeley my favorite stomping grounds were the dining porch of the two-story flat that houses the Chez Panisse Cafe. Alice Waters has always been my hero, but now I have two new heroes: Ann Cooper who, with Waters’ help revamped the lunch program for the Berkeley Unified School District, and Jamie Smith who is helping revamp ours.

For the past year the Wellness Committee for our Santa Cruz City Schools has been meeting in an effort to overhaul the federally mandated lunch program, whose high fat and sugar content has been causing nationwide obesity and diabetes and leaving students unable to focus in the classroom. This fall the district has contracted with Oakland-based Revolution Foods to provide healthy meals to our elementary, middle, and high school students while we look at the feasibility of returning to cooking in our own facilities’ kitchens.

Checking out the new food at my neighborhood Branciforte Middle School, I read the weekly menu provided by Revolution Foods, which included burritos, spaghetti, burgers, and pizza, all made with whole-wheat flour. Every day there was a vegetarian option, and all meals included fresh fruit and hormone-free milk. Kids were walking away from the food window with barbecued chicken sandwiches, Chinese chicken salad, apples or carrots, chocolate chip cookies, and slushies. One kid had bought two slushies, but I doubt he was able to finish both before the bell without getting a brain freeze.

The slushies, made with 100% juice and no sugar, are an attempt to compete with 7-11 and the gas station. “We’d rather have the students buy their food from us,” Jamie told me. But in the future smoothies made with fresh fruit may replace the slushies. The kids at Harbor are responding to Jamie’s veggie bowls; the number of students buying lunch on campus is rising, and the number of kids participating at Branciforte Middle School is climbing as well.

I decided to try the food myself, and as I ate my chicken sandwich, I asked a few tables of Branciforte students how they liked the new lunch. They didn’t like the chicken sandwich, but it tasted okay to me, and I felt better afterward than I would have if I’d been offered chicken nuggets. They liked the chocolate chip cookies, which they may not have realized were made with whole wheat. But what they were responding to was the homemade food Jackie made in the Branciforte kitchen, and that was the ultimate goal of our Wellness Committee.

“The kids are soaking it up,” says Jackie Russell, who has worked for the district in food service, most recently at Branciforte, for seventeen years. “We’re cooking breakfast for them twice a week, homemade muffins and bread made with fruit and whole wheat flour. The kids love it.”

The fruit Jackie is putting in the bread, in fact all of the produce in the new lunch program, comes from one source: Alba near Salinas, which provides 100% local organic fruits and vegetables in season. By buying from this one source, our district food service is actually saving money on produce, and the kids are getting healthier food. In the past, food service has lost money because federal subsidies do not meet the cost of food in our area. This year food service has raised its prices to reflect that reality. The next step is to increase student participation.

Jackie says she’s glad to see the food coming back to where it was. That’s what Ann Cooper did in 2005 for the Berkeley Unified School District brought it back to scratch cooking. But even in the land of the Edible Schoolyard, Cooper had to make concessions. She had to use commodity meat to feed that volume of students in a federally subsidized program, and when her students rebelled against fresh vegetables in the pizza sauce, she met them halfway by pureeing the vegetables into the sauce.

Ann Cooper not only cooked from scratch, but also harvested from the Edible Schoolyard, and in Santa Cruz, Life Lab needs to be an integral part of the nutrition program as well. I have witnessed the benefits of hands-on labor in the garden; not only do students gain a better understanding of where their food comes from –or should come from– but many who are unable to focus in the classroom are mentally and physically engaged in the garden. Currently only a small percentage of Branciforte students have access to Life Lab, but when the new athletic field –paid for 100% by federal stimulus dollars– is completed, it will include a garden large enough to accommodate all science classes.

Last year two food service consultants from Local Plates conducted a full assessment of our district’s food program, and they made it clear that an eventual overhaul of the district-wide program was not only fiscally possible but also sustainable, while the current program was not sustainable from either a fiscal or a wellness point of view. Our Wellness Committee is committed to feeding students so that they can focus on their schoolwork. Even in the midst of financial crisis, we will use the funding resources we have to better meet the students’ nutritional needs. We will use our physical resources as one of the richest farming communities in the world. And we will use the enthusiasm we have as a community to teach our students about sources of healthy, nutritious, and organic foods.

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Victoria Tatum cooks from her garden and the Farmer’s Market in Santa Cruz, CA where she lives with her husband, and two teenagers who need to be fed large meals every few hours. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State, and her articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Growing Up Santa Cruz. Her novel, The Virgin’s Children, was published in 2006 with Rain Books. Read an excerpt and follow her blog at www.vtatum.com.

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