In Sacto. Schools, Heroes in the Kitchen

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SACRAMENTO - Gabriel Ramirez describes how he runs to get his first choice at the school cafeteria these days -- a far cry from when the only food served was "those little burrito things...I didn't even know what was in 'em."

Ramirez, 17, spoke recently at a news briefing sponsored by the California Endowment, whose “Health Happens in Schools” initiative promotes healthful meals in all of California’s 9,800 public schools. Aside from the slim pickings, the Sacramento native says the lines ensured there was almost no time to eat.

Today Sacramento is among a vanguard of districts that have managed to get a jumpstart on new federal guidelines that for the first time in 15 years lifts school nutrition standards.

“We’re good at what we do,” said SCUSD Head Chef Dave Edgar. With a staff of some 300, Edgar served up over 6 million meals in 2011, at an average cost of roughly $2.77 per meal. Options ranged from Mexican, Italian and Asian to fresh Cesar salads and beef lettuce wraps.

That last didn’t go over well, says Edgar, who along with SCUSD Nutrition Services Manager Brenda Padilla conducts student taste tests to determine what will and wont be popular with kids. “The goal,” or one of them at least, “is variety,” explains Padilla, noting that preferences can be wide ranging - from personal to dietary to religious -- in a district that is one of the most ethnically diverse in the country.

Not to mention students can be some of the most finicky of eaters.

Tackling Hunger, Improving Performance

“Children cannot learn if they are hungry,” said Sandip Kaur, Nutrition Services Director with the California State Department of Education.

Highlighting the fact that one third of California children are obese and that upwards of 30 percent suffer from diabetes or other health-related illnesses, she noted such health disparities “contribute to the state’s achievement gap.”

Studies also increasingly show connections between childhood nutrition and later cognitive development, including learning and problem solving.

A number of initiatives have been rolled out in recent years aimed at addressing these issues, most notably the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, it increases the federal reimbursement to schools for each lunch served by 6 cents to $2.81, with the state chipping in an additional 22 cents.

Some 70 percent of students in the Sacramento City Unified School District qualify for federally subsidized free or reduced price meals. To qualify, a student’s family income must fall below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or $41,348 for a family of four in 2011.

Under the new federal guidelines, schools will be required to double the amount of fruits and vegetables on offer, and boost offerings of whole grain-rich foods. The new standards also set maximums for calories and cut sodium and trans fat, which is associated with high cholesterol levels.

Pointing to state-led efforts, including State Superintendent Tom Torlakson’s “Blueprint for Great Schools,” Kaur said the aim is to “make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

But with the guidelines scheduled to be phased in over the 2012-2013 school year, Sacramento is already well ahead of the game.

By July of 2011, the district already had a salad bar in every school offering up to “eight different varieties of fruits and vegetables,” explained Padilla, adding that with the proximity to a number of nearby local farmers, her office has been able to maintain farm-to-school partnerships that offer a steady supply of locally grown produce.

Padilla’s team, said Kaur, deserved the “gold for school lunch Olympics.”

Speed Scratch

Still, such changes haven’t come without challenges. “I deal in fractions of a cent,” said Padilla, who explained that fluctuations in food costs - partly a result of the ongoing drought - tighten an already strained operating budget.

“Our goal is to maximize what we spend on food,” she said.

Padilla also pointed to two bond proposals scheduled to appear on the November ballot that, if passed, promise to increase funds for better and more facilities. “We’re limited,” she said, by the number of sites there are. Having more facilities, she explained, would allow her staff to do more of what she calls, “speed scratch,” or cooking on site as opposed to relying on food distribution services.

In addition, Padilla said she is focused on getting the word out to as many parents in as many languages as possible. “The attention is on making sure that everyone who qualifies for free or reduced-price meals gets it.”

Doing so, she explained, would not only increase federal funds to SCUSD, but would also speed up the long lines because fewer students would require cash transactions when grabbing their meals, meaning more time for them to actually sit down and eat.

That’s welcome news for Ramirez, who is set to graduate this year. Looking back on what his own favorite cafeteria meals were he says without doubt it was the barbecue.

“All the kids ran to that,” he recalled. “It sped up all the other lines.”

The Aug. 23 briefing was organized by New America Media, and was attended by a number of ethnic and youth media outlets, including the Spanish-language daily La Opinion and Access Local, a youth-led media outlet based in Sacramento.

It was the second in a series of seven such briefings to be held in the coming weeks across the state.

 

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