School Lunch and Children's Nutrition


On a recent late morning, hungry students queued up at Bow Wow Chow, the new self-service cafeteria at Orinda Intermediate School, where they could choose from an array of freshly prepared pasta or green salads with organic vegetables and sandwiches, Jamba Juice or IZZE naturally sweetened sparkling fruit juice. At the pre-order windows outside, others were served by school-mom volunteers who run the cafeteria. The kids swipe debit cards and pick up the special entrée of the day, like three cheese lasagna or grilled chicken kabobs with jasmine rice and tahini-yogurt sauce, each from a different local restaurant that caters and delivers the meals fresh daily. The cost for a complete lunch is $5.25, and 75 percent of students participate in the pre-order program, paid for by their parents.

“The kids in Orinda have very sophisticated palates,” said Linda Judkins, director of the Bulldog Kennel, the school’s food service. “I remember the first time I brought in kiwis, the kids went nuts. A lot of these kids grew up going to restaurants with their parents. They know what a Bolognese sauce is.”

At the other end of the Caldicott Tunnel, 12 miles away, students at the West Oakland Middle School file into their cafeteria where the day’s menu offers cheeseburgers or chicken chow mein. The burgers, like most of the food, come from food distribution giant Sysco. They are pre-cooked and reheated in the school kitchen. The chow mein is prepared with fresh noodles and vegetables by in-house cook Tamara Purifoy, who is assisted by four student volunteers in running the lunch program.

A salad bar is a new addition, just a few weeks old, offering fresh romaine lettuce, baby spinach leaves, chopped hard- boiled eggs, shredded cheese, cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes and canned fruit cocktail. But Donny Barclift, a field supervisor in Oakland school district’s nutrition service, is worried to see that few students this day are taking the fresh vegetables while many are going heavy on the canned fruit. “I’ll have to do something about that,” he said, jotting down a note. Nutrition education is a big part of his job. “Kids ask, ‘why does it have to be whole grains?” Barclift says, “and we say it gives you fiber, it’s not processed, it’s better for you.”

A complete lunch with milk is priced at $3 for Oakland middle- and high-schoolers. But at this middle school, all students eat free because almost all of them--nearly 90 percent--are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch based on their family’s low income. It is one of many schools, where all the kids eat free because of the high numbers of income-eligible students.

Bay Area school districts have been recalibrating their approaches to healthy lunches as part of a wider trend of improving school nutrition, encouraged by public sentiments and prodded by state laws and federal guidelines. Berkeley school district’s lunch program, funded by the Chez Panisse Foundation of chef Alice Waters, is a celebrated local example of the trend in improving student nutrition.

But there is a world of difference in how districts provide healthy school lunches. One key difference is money—both the income levels of school districts and the cost of lunch programs. Another is the food culture of diverse communities, so to speak, and what kids and their families are used to eating.

In districts like Oakland, with large numbers of low-income families, a high percent of students are eligible for the federal school lunch program, based on family income. The district’s nutrition service relies on federal funding to serve a lunch that meets or exceeds nutrition standards and that kids will actually want to eat. Their food preferences are shaped in part by the food choices available in their neighborhoods, which are often food deserts of limited choice and quality.

“We have a serious problem in West Oakland,” said Jennifer LeBarre, director of the Oakland school district’s nutrition service. “Liquor stores are often the only place where you can buy food.” She’s been revamping menus to incorporate less meat, more whole grains and scratch cooking, but a low budget and kids’ preferences set limits. “We taste-tested vegan stroganoff,” she said, “and students liked it. But then when we put it on the menu it was so disliked.”

Affluent school districts, such as Orinda, don’t participate in the subsidized lunch program because they have few if any students who are income eligible. Their lunch program is entirely funded by parents willing and able to pay the high cost of catered meals. Those meals, in turn, reflect choices of parents whose food preferences may lean toward the organic and locally grown produce they can buy and serve at home.

“There is a bell curve in food service operations the same way there is bell curve in every other area,” said Phyllis Bramson, director of nutrition services at the state Department of Education. There are some folks who do great things from limited funding. Then there are districts that have some challenges.” Berkeley’s lunch program is on the far end of that bell curve, Bramson said, but it is unique. “What happened in Berkeley with a huge investment of money, hasn’t happened any where else. But lots of districts are doing great work.”

What unites the varied school districts is a focus on improving the quality and nutritional value of school lunches as fundamental to children’s health and fitness. School lunches matter because kids typically get 30 to 50 percent of their daily calories from them, says Juliet Simms, nutritionist and registered dietician at the Prevention Institute, a food policy nonprofit in Oakland. “Kids who don’t have access to high quality food at home have the potential to get a high quality meal at school,” Simms said. “The Berkeley system is really the best of the best in terms of commitment and excitement over bringing high-quality food to schools. But it’s hard for districts in the Bay Area that are dealing with limited budgets to compete with that.”

And schools serve as models—for better or worse—to families of what appropriate nutrition is, says Gail Woodward-Lopez, associate director of the Center for Weight and Health in Berkeley. “If schools serve sports drinks, parents think, ‘maybe I should serve it at home,’” she said. “Schools are a focal point for children and community. Changes you make at schools really matter.”

This is the first in a series of articles on school lunch and nutrition. The articles were produced as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communcation & Journalism. Next: Oakland and West Contra Costa school districts do innovation on a shoestring.