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School Lunch: Friend or Foe?

Unlike our Marin neighbors, Sonoma's school lunch provides minimal organic food, limited fresh produce and few options. Can we do better for our students?

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.

(Check out what Sonoma's students are eating.)

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.

Lindsey Ladd May 31, 2011 at 08:20 PM
Wow! I thought a Food-Savvy town like Sonoma would have way better options for lunch than Novato! Sounds like Novato is on the right track. It's sad that we spend so much energy trying to make our kids' educations better, but then don't factor in the food. When children have a good, wholesome meal, they learn better. Works with adults too. Sad to see that they are giving children junk. Makes me sick. Maybe Jamie Oliver needs to visit Sonoma! :) Great article Michelle! Thanks for all the info.
Pamela Hawken (C) 2012 June 01, 2011 at 03:54 AM
Lots of very good information !
Alexandra Charsley June 02, 2011 at 12:29 AM
I'm really suprised and saddened to read this. I had no idea neighboring areas could be so different. We definately need a chef intervention!! Maybe we could get Girl and the Fig's Sondra Bernstein over for some advice! Personally we haven't eaten like this for years so there's no way I'm going to revert back to unhealthy food just to save myself time. But it would make life easier in the morning!
Lauren Ayers June 03, 2011 at 12:16 AM
It's great that parents are alert to the problems with the 'stealth' trans fat and the persistence of HFCS in school food, but wouldn't we also like to see the 'orphan' nutrients get some attention? DHA-EPA is crucial for good memory, empathy and impulse control, and strong immunity -- surely of interest to any educator. However, I have not seen any interest in the five years I've been attending school board and SNAC meetings. One simple way is to offer sardines in school cafeterias. It isn’t as ridiculous as you might thing: http://goodschoolfood.org/sardinesnacks.shtml Then there is the terrible stat that 70% of school kids are below optimum in their vitamin D levels, and it's 80% for Latino kids and 90% for African American kids (melanin is a sun block). http://goodschoolfood.org/pdf/fightfluwithD.pdf I made an analysis sheet to use with various foods served in the school district that gives a score to each one, and only scores over 5 (out of 9) is good enough (if I recall my system right), and only one of the packaged items from the school cafeteria that I analyzed got a score of 5. Let me know, Sonoma parents, if you want to see that form and try it out on cafeteria foods; my email is Lauren.Sonoma [at] gmail [dot] com. Or, call me at 939-9999. See more at GoodSchoolFood.org.
Michelle Rulmont June 03, 2011 at 02:32 PM
Thank you Lauren for your interesting comments and links! Definitely something we need to look at and incorporate. I will be stocking up on vitamins this winter for my kids!
Linda Thoennes Farr June 05, 2011 at 12:48 AM
The recommendation for a ban on HFCS could be very misleading to parents and consumers. Research confirms that high fructose corn syrup is safe and no different from other common sweeteners like table sugar and honey. According to the American Dietetic Association, the source of the added sugar – whether sucrose, high fructose corn syrup, honey or fruit juice concentrate – should not be of concern; rather it is the amount of total calories that is important. Restricting only one type of sugar misses the big picture. We should be focusing on the importance of limiting total sugar intake from all sources as part of a healthy, well balanced diet. Linda Farr RD/LD, consultant to the Corn Refiners Association

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