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Menu of changes

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Menu of changes

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In Del Norte County, groups such as the Children's Health Collaborative seek funding in a push to provide more nutritious meals at high schools and encourage students to make healthier food decisions.

Local to national efforts are afoot for school meals
The Daily Triplicate
Monday, January 24, 2011

Alicia De Leon Mendoza walked through a mostly empty multi-purpose room that functions as the cafeteria for Del Norte High School.

Lunchtime had just started, but students were scarce. It was sunny outside and many had left the school to get lunch, some simply walking across the parking lot to Silly Susie’s van of junk food.

A lot of students leave campus  because “it’s not worth it to pay for food they’re not going to enjoy,” said De Leon Mendoza, a DNHS junior.

A few kids were in line for slices of pizza or Vitamin Water from the “snack shack” and some sat at round, brightly colored cafeteria tables eating the hot lunch item of the day: baked chicken.

On a rainy day, the cafeteria and halls would be packed with students, she said. In fact, there wouldn’t be enough space for everyone.

De Leon Mendoza is a member of the Children’s Health Collaborative, a group of local people interested in changing school meals to combat childhood obesity. She’s also involved in CHANGE, a student group at DNHS focused on nutrition.

Changing meals, lifestyles

A phone call by Dr. Christopher Chang, who specializes in pediatrics and allergy immunology, led to the creation of CHC, an organization of parents, educators, district administrators, farmers and doctors.

Angela Goughnour, a parent of school-age children, heard about its meetings and started attending last March. With Chang leaving soon for a job on the East Coast, Goughnour is now CHC’s chair.

The group began with more questions than answers.

“There was no name to CHC, no vision no structure,” she said. “It was very nebulous.”

Members agreed that childhood obesity was a problem across Del Norte County, Goughnour said, but what was causing it?

“Was it related to hot lunches or not? Was it related to physical activity?” she said. “What are the elements that are going on here? We wanted to identify that.”

They have concluded food, physical activity, mental health, culture and life skills are interrelated.

Chang learned that school food was not as unhealthy as it might seem — everything’s baked, not fried, for example — and the district follows the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s guidelines for nutrition.

However, “it turns out those (USDA) guidelines are very loose and are very minimal guidelines in terms of healthy foods,” Chang said.

For one thing, all children were being served the same portions, he said, so a 5-year-old was getting the same calories as an 18-year-old.

This is something the USDA intends to fix in its proposed changes to nutrition standards for school meals

Chang finds this encouraging because it seems the current guidelines “ aren’t doing very much to combat this problem of childhood obesity after all.”

"Taste is a big factor"

De Leon Mendoza brings her lunch to school most days because it takes too much time waiting in line for food.

But also, the food is not always worth its price, she said. She once got popcorn chicken for $1 at lunch, and it was partly frozen.

DNHS students go to Taco Bell where “it’s cheaper to get something they’ll prefer rather than get something that’s not worth their buck,” she said.

Or, there’s Silly Susie’s Ice Cream, a traveling van of candy bars, chips and soda, De Leon Mendoza said.

“Taste is a big factor” in getting more high-schoolers to eat the healthier food the district offers, she said, and “more stations and space would help, too.”

Some of the ideas high-schoolers have come up with to improve school meals are allowing local restaurants like Gordi Bros or Perlita’s to set up food carts in the parking lot right outside of the cafeteria, De Leon Mendoza said. But that probably wouldn’t work because those restaurants would be competing with the school district, she said.

Or, the students would like to have a station where they could make their sandwiches like Subway or sweet and sour chicken with rice — stuff they’ve heard that schools “down south” have, De Leon Mendoza said.

Ultimately, what they would really like is to have food prepared and served right there at the school.

“Kind of like how it used to be,” the 16-year-old said with a laugh.

Despite its faults, De Leon Mendoza said it’s important that the school district participate in the National School Lunch Program because a lot of kids qualify for a free or reduced-price meal.

Without what schools offer, “some kids wouldn’t get a meal,” she said.

More vegetables, less fat

Nationwide, there’s a movement  afoot to make school meals more nutritious.

On Jan. 13, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service announced proposed changes to school meals for districts that participate in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program.

The impetus is a growing concern about childhood obesity.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2003-2006 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, almost 32 percent of children 6 to 19 years old are overweight or obese, which makes them more at risk for heart disease, high blood pressure and Type 2 diabetes.

The problem is even worse in Del Norte County, where just under half of students whose Body Mass Index (weight to height ratio) was measured were overweight or obese.

This data is several years old. School nurses are collecting new BMI results for students and expect to have results soon.

“We’re going to really change this by changing lifestyles,” Chang said about the obesity problem.

Americans tend to live sedentary lives, eat processed food, consume too many calories and carbohydrates and don’t eat a balanced diet with enough fruits and vegetables, he explained.

“You have to eat healthy all the time,” Chang said. “Yes, you can deviate from that occasionally, but in general your diet should be a healthy diet whether you’re at school or home.”

CHC’s inception came about at a good time, he said, and can be helped by nationwide efforts to change how Americans eat and exercise, such as the proposed changes to nutritional standards and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Lets Move campaign to promote kids to be more physically active.

“Around the same time as all these national campaigns to combat childhood obesity, we’re getting started,” Chang said.

Under the USDA’s proposed changes, nutritional requirements for the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program would be more closely aligned to the 2005 Dietary Guidelines.

The proposed changes are based on the 2009 Institute of Medicine report “School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children.” This would include:

• Offering more fruits at breakfast

• Increasing the amount and variety of vegetables at lunch

• Offering more whole-grain rich foods

• Limiting milk choices to fat-free and low-fat

• Establishing minimum and maximum calorie levels for each age/grade group

• Increasing the emphasis on limiting saturated fat (must be 10 percent or less of the total calories)

• Reducing sodium

• Minimizing trans fat

The USDA is recommending that school meals be planned out so that a K-8 student would eat 2.5 cups of fruit, 3.75 cups of vegetables, 9-10 ounces of grains (half of which must be whole-grain), 8-10 ounces of meat or meat alternative and 5 cups of milk in a week.

Another of the proposed change would be the amount of calories kids consume in a week based on age.

The recommendations from the Institute of Medicine are that lunches for K-5 students should only be 550-650 calories, 600-700 calories for kids in grades 6-8 and up to 750-850 for high-schoolers.

Food service workers are already making an effort to give younger students smaller portions than other students so they’re not getting too many calories — this was a concern Chang raised to the district.

Requirements might be altered further once the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans are finalized, which could include: lowering saturated fat consumption to less than 7 percent of a person’s total calories, reducing sodium consumption to less than 1,500 milligrams per day and adding a new red/orange vegetable subgroup.

Six more cents a meal

In exchange for providing more nutritious foods at schools, districts will receive 6 cents more per student meal from the federal government.

As part of the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, the local school district is reimbursed for each meal a student takes, depending on how his or her parent’s income qualifies.

In Del Norte schools, 64 percent qualify for free and reduced-price meals.

Right now, the district receives $2.94 for students who qualify for a free meal and $2.54 for those who get it at a reduced price.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson recently said that the new federal nutritional standards would cost school districts 64 more cents per student, per day for both breakfast and lunch — a 58-cent gap in funding.

Torlakson has said he will try to leverage more funds from the federal government to help districts.

Catch them while they're young

The members of CHC are adamant that education is the key to getting kids to choose healthy food. They want to change the perception that vegetables and foods made with whole-wheat taste bad.

The younger children are when they hear the message about healthy food, Goughnour said, the more likely they’ll grow up liking green vegetables.

“We need more education in gardening and food systems,” she said. “What’s healthy and not healthy, what makes it healthy or not healthy; to get them to like green things.”

Chang agreed that education has to start early.

“Our goal is not just to bring healthy foods into the schools,” he said, “but to educate students on what is healthy and teaching them to respect their bodies and to actually do the things that will make their bodies healthy.”

The statewide initiative Network for a Healthy California puts nutrition educators into classrooms, from preschool to high school, to give lessons on healthy eating, drinking lots of water and getting plenty of physical activity. They also teach students about gardening.

“I think if you start at a young age, that’s where we have to target all this,” Chang said. “I think that probably more health education should be done in the schools.”

During a CHC meeting Tuesday, De Leon Mendoza started to think about how bad eating habits can affect a person’s mental health.

She wondered why only ninth-graders take health; why not offer related courses for the other grades? Even something like a one-day workshop would be benefical in keeping nutrition in the forefront of students’ minds, she said.

“Something like that could change minds,” De Leon Mendoza said.

She already has seen the impact that Network for a Healthy California lessons have had on her 7-year-old sister.

When she was in sixth grade, De Leon Mendoza, harvested and ate vegetables from Crescent Elk Middle School’s garden.

“I wish all students got that opportunity,” she said.

What can be done now

CHC hopes to get funding from The California Endowment to renovate the kitchens at Bess Maxwell and Mary Peacock elementary schools so salad bars can be served at lunch.

The schools need three-compartment sinks and vinyl flooring to comply with building and health codes.

The group is seeking funding from The California Endowment to bring Ann Evans and Georgeanne Brennan, a consulting duo in Davis who specialize in changing school meals, up to Del Norte.

“They could teach us about what to do to produce more from gardens to the kitchen,” Goughnour said. “So we can get back to a little bit more whole foods.”

A little creativity could greatly improve school meals, she said, such as baked chicken with parmesan, whole-wheat pasta and sauce with hidden vegetables.

CHC will be getting the help of an AmeriCorps VISTA member who knows about community organizing. The group decided Tuesday to have the VISTA worker focus on finding funding sources outside of The California Endowment and getting the community on board with making changes to school meals.

Research will also be crucial for determining if any changes to students’ diet and education are making a difference, Chang said.

“If we make changes in menu — less calories, higher fiber, protein — then we can see how that affects the problem of childhood obesity by looking at their BMIs over the years,” he said.

“By doing research on education,” Chang continued, “we can see what kids believe now and what they believe in three years and how they feel after making changes.”

CHC has the potential to have a positive effect on the community, he said. However, in a few weeks Chang will be keeping track of the group’s progress from afar when he and his family moves to the East Coast.

“Making changes is a difficult  process,” Chang said. “It takes time and I think we’re definitely heading in the right direction.”

Goughnour will be leading the group now and concurs that CHC could change how not only children but the whole community eats.

Goughnour realizes that this will take time and money — she hasn’t quite identified all the barriers standing in CHC’s way to making changes yet — but she has faith in what can be done. The group has a lot of talented people working together, coming up with ideas to create an ideal school meal system.

“Our group,” she said, “can move mountains.”