What's for lunch?
A group of parents, educators and nutrition experts are making strides to break the cycle of unhealthy food choices among students in the Del Norte County Unified School District.
There’s a rhythm to school lunches.
Rotating meals are chosen well in advance so kids and parents know what’s on the menu.
Food service workers know when to put the food out, and the students know when to line up.
They have a half-hour or less to eat and are ushered out with the ringing of the bell so the next group can eat.
A group of local people is looking to shake up that rhythm.
“I would love there to be huge gardens at each school,” said Angela Goughhour, a parent who is part of the group. “And that kids know how to make a seed into a plant that they can harvest something from — whether it’s a carrot or a pea — and possibly enjoy it.”
Almost a year ago, meetings started taking place to discuss the foods served in the Del Norte County Unified School District.
What started with one or two people has blossomed to a dozen or so doctors, parents, nutrition and cultural educators calling themselves the Children’s Health Collaborative (CHC).
The objective is to combat childhood obesity in Del Norte County by serving students wholesome foods — and not just healthy food disguised as fast food. They want to educate them about healthy foods so they actually want to eat the good stuff.
“One of the main goals of CHC is not so much to force-feed healthy foods onto kids,” said Dr. Christopher Chang, who helped create the group, “but to educate kids and the parents and the community on what is healthy and change habits.”
The way Goughnour sees it: “Clearly something needs to happen right away.”
The school district needs to supply students with not only healthy meals, but something that’s more appetizing so kids eat their lunch instead of throwing it away.
“If it’s healthy and looks horrible, who is going to eat it?” she said.
What they're up against
There are always barriers change.
Money is an issue. The school district receives less than $3 per meal from the National School Lunch Program and has to follow the federal government’s nutritional guidelines.
The district tries to offer students healthy versions of foods they like so they eat the hot lunch. Students have to take the lunch in order for the school district’s costs to be reimbursed by the federal government.
There’s also the lack of kitchens in Del Norte schools. Crescent Elk Middle School houses the central kitchen that cooks and packages meals for all schools.
Decisions will have to be made on how to provide more meals cooked from scratch and how to get students to like the healthier fare.
But the CHC came about at an opportune time.
New national nutritional standards have been proposed to improve school meals by cutting back on fat and sodium and adding more fruits and vegetables.
In addition, The California Endowment has selected Del Norte County and adjacent tribal lands as one of 10 communities to improve health outcomes with the help of grant funding.
Little green 'trees'
Chicken nuggets are one example of a food kids love that’s made more healthy by being baked and not fried. Recently at Bess Maxwell Elementary School, students lined up to get their lunch packaged in a plastic tray and covered with plastic wrap.
They had a choice of fresh cut brocoli or mixed vegetables with ranch, red apples, oranges or pears and skim regular or chocolate milk. Many opted for fruit over vegetables.
One boy asked a food service worker why they were being served small trees, referring to the brocoli.
Students were mixed on whether they liked their lunches; vegetables were acceptable to some, while others don’t eat anything green.
Fifth-grader Gage Ownsbey ate his lunch that day, but said he didn’t think chicken nuggets and fries could be healthy.
He said he likes vegetables of all different types; as does Mason Jones, also a fifth-grader, who was eating the brocoli because “vegetables taste good and are healthy for me.”
Salad bar popularity
At Del Norte High School, students have a wide variety of food stations to choose from; they are also free to leave campus. In a school of about 1,000, less than 300 on average eat the hot lunch.
There’s the line for the meal of the day and salad bar with romaine lettuce, chicken, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, cauliflower and broccoli. There’s also cottage cheese and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Self-described “salad bar lady” Cynthia Young said she sees 180 students go through the line in mere minutes.
Three years ago, when she started working for food service, only about 30 students would eat at the salad bar, now that number is more than 100, she said.
The high school is trying out some new recipes for hot lunches, such as orange chicken and salisbury steak, Young said. Starting in February, every Monday lunch will be a vegetarian meal and Wednesday will be a chicken dish, she said.
High-schoolers can buy food a la carte with cash
At the “snack shack” recently, Donna Wright was almost sold out of her supply of burritos, turkey sandwiches, pizza and tater tots.
There were also cereal bars, baked chips, pretzels, Gatorade, apple juice, Muscle Milk and fudge bars.
It was all healthier than it sounds: The chips were baked, the drinks were 100 percent juice, the Pop Tarts were made with whole grains and the ice cream was low in fat.
Most days this station is “pretty packed,” Wright said. “Usually, I don’t have any food left.”
This is the type of food kids want to eat, she said.
On a rainy day, high-schoolers lined the hallways of DNHS eating lunch and chatting with friends. Since the campus has an open lunch, they can drive to pick up food or walk across the parking lot (much to the chagrin of school officials and nutrition educators) to Silly Susie’s van bursting with junk food.
A few girls were sitting in front of lockers eating chips, candy bars and soda. Emma Card, 16 and an athlete, said the snacks were a one-time deal for practicing hard for a game.
The girls said they usually bring their lunch and think the school food is gross and tastes like the plastic the meals are packaged in at the central kitchen before being trucked to schools.
“It would be cool if (the food) was locally grown,” Card said.
School food doesn’t look fresh, Card said, and doesn’t seem healthy.
They would like more fresh fruit and foods that taste like they eat at home, such as mashed potatoes and spaghetti, or sandwiches they can customize like at Subway.
Healthy, but at a price
The school district has been providing nutritious meals to students, said Judy Wangerin, the director of Food Services.
“We really do offer healthy choices,” she said.
It’s Wangerin’s job to make sure that kids are getting enough calories, not too much fat and sodium and the nutrients they need in a week’s time.
But it’s difficult to provide homecooked meals without kitchens at every school, Wangerin said.
There used to kitchens at every Del Norte school, but they slowly disappeared and a system of cooking and packaging meals at the central kitchen at Crescent Elk Middle School and shipping them out to all the other schools was developed.
The system is not ideal, Wangerin said, and it would be better to cook more wholesome meals at each school and serve fewer pre-made burritos and pizzas.
But, “that’s how it has to be,” Wangerin said, “without being able to cook on site.”
Getting kitchens back into schools is something everyone would like to see happen, Wangerin said, but no one has really talked about how to make that happen.
“I do think it would be the ideal thing,” Wangerin said, “Everybody would benefit.”
But even if the district decided to do more on-site cooking at the central kitchen, it would mean increased labor costs.
“The biggest cost is labor,” she said. “We could do more if we could pay for the labor.”
The food service department employs 26 people.
The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act approved by Congress in December will increase funding for school meal programs by an additional 6 cents a meal.
This will help, Wangerin said, but more money is still needed to provide nutritious and better tasting meals to kids.
Many local schools have started to offer a salad bar at lunch. That has helped get more vegetables and fruits to students, Wangerin said, but Bess Maxwell and Mary Peacock Elementary Schools are not equipped to provide salad bars — something the CHC is working to change.
The school district gets its commodities like meat and produce from the state and puts out bids for milk, bread, juice and other foods.
Once the new federal nutrition requirements are approved, Wangerin said the school district should be able to get healthier foods from the state.
The district uses local distributors to get Humboldt Creamery and Franz bread and gets cereal, juice and snack items from Sysco, a company based in Houston.
Food availability is limited by what’s in the small warehouse in Sacramento that Sysco uses to supply the district.
“We’re delivery-challenged,” Wangerin said about Del Norte’s remote location.
Giving them what they want
Wangerin said she tries to get food that students want to eat because the more who choose the hot meal over bringing their lunch, the more money the district gets back from the government. Otherwise, the district is out the money it put into buying food and paying food services staff.
“We’re caught in the middle,” Wangerin said about following nutritional guidelines and providing something kids want to eat.
While the food might sometimes resemble what kids get at a fast food restaurant or convenience store, it doesn’t have fat and sugar like the restaurant fare, she said.
Wangerin acknowledges that serving those foods is “not the ideal way to educate them on what to eat,” but a lot of them don’t know what home-cooked meals are and just throw those meals in the trash.
The number of students who choose hot lunches goes down on days when meals that food service workers prepare like spaghetti or chicken and rice are served, Wangerin said, compared to when chicken nuggets are on the menu.
At Del Norte High School, students have choices beyond the hot lunch, and “a lot do make really good choices,” Wangerin said.
Slowly, kids’ tastes are changing, she said. With more education, they will want to eat more whole grains and vegetables, she said.
Phone call starts campaign
After reading about childhood obesity in a five-part series in The Daily Triplicate a year ago, Chang, a specialist in pediatrics and allergy and immunology, looked at his children’s school menus and had a problem with what he saw.
“Just by looking at the school menu at face value, it didn’t seem to jive with very much that was being done to help with childhood obesity,” Chang said.
He saw breakfast burritos, pizza and tator tots on the menu, and those didn’t seem like healthy foods.
“I couldn’t reconcile that that was healthy food,” he said.
Chang called District Superintendent Jan Moorehouse to meet with her to discuss school foods, and more people started rallying around the issue.
He learned that the food is healthier than it appears, but thought maybe it was time to not only improve what kids eat, but teach them to like healthy foods.
“So really all I did was make a phone call,” Chang said, but the momentum for change had begun.