This column is part of our weeklong nutrition series - .
The scene plays out every weekday: early morning, a tired parent, one arm holding the refrigerator door open asking, 'what do we have that’s healthy? What on earth is for lunch?'
For students in the , a typical lunch might include a sloppy joe, baked "scrabble cheez-its," and orange smiles.
In many ways, Sonoma's lunch is already a cut above the rest of the nation. Donna Lucci, food service program manager for the SVUSD, says she refuses to use “commodity” fruits and vegetables, provided by the US Department of Agriculture to districts, because the quality is just too low. Instead, Coastline Produce, a Santa Rosa-based company, which rigorously tests their produce for pesticides, provids all produce for the district.
Produce is on the uptick: by the 2011/2012 school year every school will have a salad bar, with produce - such as jicama, strawberries and kiwi - selected and individualized by school. And you won't find chocolate milk on campus: it has been phased out and replaced with several options; including antibiotic and rBST free Clover Stornetta.
But, there's room for more improvement.
“All the restaurants here are promoting locally grown produce and have their own gardens, but we can't serve our own children a proper lunch except out of a tin," said mom Alexandra Charsley.
How can we be a culinary destination, yet our kids are eating foods that are of a lower quality than our neighbors in Marin County? Here's what's still lacking:
Increase organic produce and fresh vegetables
Unlike schools in Marin, with a budget of $1.4 million, it is just not feasible to provide organic foods and vegetables in Sonoma, says Lucci. “Organic food is extremely expensive and I quite frankly don’t have the funding at this moment to purchase organic," Lucci said. The recently launched School Garden Project, sponsored by the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation, will provide food to supplement school meals, but it won't be enough to make a huge dent.
The Novato Unified School District partners with local farms by "gleaning,": "It is basically food that did not make the market standard but is donated to the schools," said Miguel Villareal, the district's director of food services.
This provides 20-30 percent of the district's fresh produce, and Villareal is hopeful that through gleaning, he'll be able to make half the district's produce organic.
Eliminate high fructose corn syrup; reduce sugar
“[School lunch includes] high fructose corn syrup," said Lucci. "It’s kind of unavoidable."
Not so in Novato: Villareal has eliminated over 400 pounds of sugar per day from school lunches - totaling 36-tons per year. Revolution Foods, which provides lunches to , includes corn syrup on its “never-ever" list of banned products: including artificial colors and trans fats.
Recently my daughter brought home a brownie from school lunch with 19-grams of sugar. I thought, 'does she really need this?'
Eliminate (really, eliminate) trans fats
Sandra Serbicki, mother of students, was surprised to find hidden trans fats in Sonoma's menu during a meeting of Sonoma Nutrition and Physical Activity Advisory Council (SNAC).
"We were informed that all foods served in the district have no trans fat, but when we received ingredient lists for a month’s worth of menus, I found numerous listings for “margarine” or “hydrogenated oil," said Serbicki. "Turns out that a food item that contains less than half a gram can still be labeled “0 grams trans fat."
Stop serving on styrofoam
Styrofoam trays grace district cafeterias, but the petroleum based material has been linked to cancer and is not bio-degradeable.
“Why are we serving school lunches in Styrofoam and using plastic utensils?" said Charsley. "How can we make such a big deal about going solar, we've moved forward in one direction, but backwards in another.”
Be more like Marin Our southern neighbors offer better choices, at a somewhat higher cost per student. The Ross Valley School District's partnership with ChoiceLunch offers a mostly organic lunch with almost eight options (three hot, over five cold) including things like sushi, chinese chicken salad, and Annie’s macaroni and cheese. It costs $4.80-6.25 per day. Neighboring Novato Unified only charges $.25 more than Sonoma per lunch, but for $2.75 offers organic fruits and vegetables and limits corn syrup (“only found in the hamburger buns”, Villareal said.)
Think outside the box
The ever vigilant local food advocate Alice Waters recently praised her local Berkeley district cafeterias for...compromising.
"Schools here in Berkeley...continue to use U.S.D.A. commodities, but cook food from scratch and have added organic fruits and vegetables from area farms."
The bottom line: we need to educate our children to choose good food for their health and the environment. It all starts with awareness, and the willingness to do the legwork to give our children heatlhy foods at school.