Edible Marin and Wine Country Spring 2011 : Page 33

THE “NEW SCHOOL” LUNCH: CONNECTING LOCAL STUDENTS TO LOCAL BOUNTY BY KIRSTEN JONES NEFF D rive west, not much more than 15 minutes from any point along the Highway 101 corridor in Marin and Sonoma counties, and you will find yourself amidst some of the most generous land on the planet: the vast hillsides and stretches of rich bottomland soil that nourish our local agriculture. Tucked into the fertile rises created by the North Bay’s tectonic history are kelly green fields, rows and rows of bounty, be it kale or broccoli or exotic greens, orchards or olive groves, beehives or chicken roosts. Our counties also abound with dairies and ranches that produce some of the most delicious milk, cheese, yogurt and meats in the world. Many of us reap the benefits of this richness every day, at our favorite farmers’ markets and burgeoning “local” shelves at the grocery store. This is a region of foodies who enjoy, in both our homes and our world-class restaurants, the best tasting, pesticide-free seasonal bounty you can get. But what about our children? What do we find when we go into the schools to see what the youngest citizens of our counties are eating? It is no great secret that the public school system has been left out of the systems of abundance in the United States. As we generate billionaires, our public schools fall further behind in what they are able to provide for our children. This embarrassing truth is represented suc-cinctly in our schools’ struggle to provide students with the most basic and essential provision: nutrition. “We owe it to the children who aren’t reaching their potential because they’re not getting the nutrition they need during the day,” First Lady Michelle Obama wrote in an op-ed piece related to the December passage of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, legislation designed to support school lunch reform and curtail a national health crisis. Currently, one in three children in the United States is either overweight or obese, and one in three will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives. The United States has one of the highest obesity rates in the world and we spend $150 billion every year to treat obesity-related conditions. California obesity rates are nearly 25%, and a report by the Center for Public Health Advocacy estimates that in Sonoma County 43.5% of low-income children between 5 and 11 years old are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight. When the First Lady uses the word “nutrition,” she is speaking of food that is not made with partially hydroge-nated oils, high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar or flour, chemicals, dyes or preservatives. Unfortunately, due to chronically poor funding and a maze of bureaucratic road-blocks, many of our local public schools still serve foods made with all of the above. Some of these “old school” school lunches are actually packaged up and flown in from the Midwest—this, in an area where “organic, local and sustainable” are supposedly taken for granted. So, what can we do besides feel badly that we have access to some of the healthiest and tastiest food available while chil-dren around us are eating poorly? For a start we can recognize another extraordinary North Bay resource—the visionaries and activists amongst us—and fall in line to support leaders like Miguel Villarreal, the Novato Unified School District Food Service Director, who has worked on these issues for decades, long before Mrs. Obama brought them to national attention. “This is nothing new I’m doing here,” Villarreal says during a recent lunchtime tour of the Novato High School kitchen. “Twenty five hundred years ago, in the time of Aristotle and Socrates, they were talking about ‘Let food be thy medicine.’” Villarreal considers it a personal mission to stop the tide of preventable, nutrition-related chronic illnesses, most specifically, Type II diabetes. Over the past eight years he has collaborated with a robust community of local food activ-ists, people like Helge Hellberg and Scott Anderson of Marin Organic (MO), Leah Smith of the Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM) and Judi Shils, founder of a fairly new initiative called Project Lunch, to put the North Bay in the vanguard of a national movement. These leaders, along with commit-ted students, parents, local businesses and progressive chefs, are connecting the dots to link our children’s vulnerable bodies to the healthy foods grown right where they live. The day of my visit, I watch Mr. Villarreal check in with his Novato High kitchen staff while they organize boxes of local produce in preparation for the noon rush. A long line forms outside two cramped service windows, only one of many inadequate features of this enclosed, understaffed kitchen. Villarreal concedes that many students “just won’t wait” in the long line and instead bypass the healthy menus he has worked hard to create. On the other hand, he is eager to point out the positive changes that he has made in the area of ingredients. “We used to spend $500 a week on fresh produce. Now we spend $2,500 a week. There’s nothing frozen here,” Villarreal says as he shows off a pizza topped with vegeta-bles from local farms. “Where do I get the money for that produce? I eliminated juice cartons. That is 12–14 cents per carton of juice that is now directed toward fresh produce.” As patient students make it to the front of the line, they order what appears to be the day’s most popular option: chili and a sandwich. It is not simply a matter of bringing in local, EDIBLE MARIN & WINE COUNTRY SPRING 2011 | 33 Photo: Stacy Ventura, www. stacyventura.com

The “New School” Lunch: Connecting Local Students To Local Bounty

Kirsten Jones Neff

Drive west, not much more than 15 minutes from any point along the Highway 101 corridor in Marin and Sonoma counties, and you will find yourself amidst some of the most generous land on the planet: the vast hillsides and stretches of rich bottomland soil that nourish our local agriculture. Tucked into the fertile rises created by the North Bay's tectonic history are kelly green fields, rows and rows of bounty, be it kale or broccoli or exotic greens, orchards or olive groves, beehives or chicken roosts. Our counties also abound with dairies and ranches that produce some of the most delicious milk, cheese, yogurt and meats in the world. Many of us reap the benefits of this richness every day, at our favorite farmers' markets and burgeoning "local" shelves at the grocery store. This is a region of foodies who enjoy, in both our homes and our world-class restaurants, the best tasting, pesticide-free seasonal bounty you can get.<br /> <br /> But what about our children? What do we find when we go into the schools to see what the youngest citizens of our counties are eating? It is no great secret that the public school system has been left out of the systems of abundance in the United States. As we generate billionaires, our public schools fall further behind in what they are able to provide for our children. This embarrassing truth is represented succinctly in our schools' struggle to provide students with the most basic and essential provision: nutrition.<br /> <br /> "We owe it to the children who aren't reaching their potential because they're not getting the nutrition they need during the day," First Lady Michelle Obama wrote in an op-ed piece related to the December passage of the Healthy and Hunger- Free Kids Act of 2010, legislation designed to support school lunch reform and curtail a national health crisis.<br /> <br /> Currently, one in three children in the United States is either overweight or obese, and one in three will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives. The United States has one of the highest obesity rates in the world and we spend $150 billion every year to treat obesity-related conditions. California obesity rates are nearly 25%, and a report by the Center for Public Health Advocacy estimates that in Sonoma County 43.5% of low-income children between 5 and 11 years old are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.<br /> <br /> When the First Lady uses the word "nutrition," she is speaking of food that is not made with partially hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup, refined sugar or flour, chemicals, dyes or preservatives. Unfortunately, due to chronically poor funding and a maze of bureaucratic roadblocks, many of our local public schools still serve foods Made with all of the above. Some of these "old school" school lunches are actually packaged up and flown in from the Midwest–this, in an area where "organic, local and sustainable" are supposedly taken for granted.<br /> <br /> So, what can we do besides feel badly that we have access to some of the healthiest and tastiest food available while children around us are eating poorly? For a start we can recognize another extraordinary North Bay resource–the visionaries and activists amongst us–and fall in line to support leaders like Miguel Villarreal, the Novato Unified School District Food Service Director, who has worked on these issues for decades, long before Mrs. Obama brought them to national attention. "This is nothing new I'm doing here," Villarreal says during a recent lunchtime tour of the Novato High School kitchen. "Twenty five hundred years ago, in the time of Aristotle and Socrates, they were talking about 'Let food be thy medicine.'"<br /> <br /> Villarreal considers it a personal mission to stop the tide of preventable, nutrition-related chronic illnesses, most specifically, Type II diabetes. Over the past eight years he has collaborated with a robust community of local food activists, people like Helge Hellberg and Scott Anderson of Marin Organic (MO), Leah Smith of the Agricultural Institute of Marin (AIM) and Judi Shils, founder of a fairly new initiative called Project Lunch, to put the North Bay in the vanguard of a national movement. These leaders, along with committed students, parents, local businesses and progressive chefs, are connecting the dots to link our children's vulnerable bodies to the healthy foods grown right where they live.<br /> <br /> The day of my visit, I watch Mr. Villarreal check in with his Novato High kitchen staff while they organize boxes of local produce in preparation for the noon rush. A long line forms outside two cramped service windows, only one of many inadequate features of this enclosed, understaffed kitchen. Villarreal concedes that many students "just won't wait" in the long line and instead bypass the healthy menus he has worked hard to create. On the other hand, he is eager to point out the positive changes that he has made in the area of ingredients. "We used to spend $500 a week on fresh produce. Now we spend $2,500 a week. There's nothing frozen here," Villarreal says as he shows off a pizza topped with vegetables from local farms. "Where do I get the money for that produce? I eliminated juice cartons. That is 12–14 cents per carton of juice that is now directed toward fresh produce."<br /> <br /> As patient students make it to the front of the line, they order what appears to be the day's most popular option: chili and a sandwich. It is not simply a matter of bringing in local, Sustainably grown food, Villarreal says, but also of phasing out everything else. "Many years ago we took out sodas. Then it was the cookies and doughnuts. More recently, we took out juice and chocolate milk. We did a calculation and realized that we have now taken more than 60 tons of sugar out of our Novato Unified School District students' lunches."<br /> <br /> Novato High is one of several Marin County schools whose lunch programs have been assisted by the Project Lunch campaign. Judi Shils and over 100 Project Lunch stakeholders– eco-businesses, school administrators, community groups, chefs and farmers–have supported a bumper crop of on campus Project Lunch Food Clubs which connect food service staff and students with resources like MO, AIM and Whole Foods Markets. The idea is to get everyone working together to transform not only school menus, but also students' baseline understanding of health and wellness.<br /> <br /> "We realized we're buying from a lot of the same local vendors like Red Hill Farms, Star Route Farms and County Line Harvest," Villarreal says of Novato's collaboration with Whole Foods. So now we are sharing recipes and doing food demonstrations here." He describes a recent Barilla Pasta demonstration day as "the ideal," as the cafeteria was packed to the brim with students excited to learn to make and eat a healthy dish.<br /> <br /> When asked about the impact of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, Villarreal quickly goes back to what he sees as the more critical need for involvement from the community and regional vendors. "The Obama bill is great, of course, but it will bring me an extra 6 cents per meal. That turns out to be about half of a salad," says Villarreal. "I've Been in this business for 30 years, and long ago I realized we can't wait around and hold our breath for the Feds and the State. That is wishful thinking."<br /> <br /> It turns out that individuals and foundations have funded some of Villarreal's most important programs. "One person decided they would fund all of the buses so each month I can take students and parents out to farms to glean with MO." Exposure to the roots of food production is exactly what Villarreal believes will help students make the right choices. His dream is to build a large-scale teaching farm on a football field size plot of unused land on the Novato High campus. The school would develop an academic agriculture program, and the harvest would feed the district's students. "How much more local could you get?" he asks, gazing out over the expansive open field.<br /> <br /> Across town from Novato High, San Marin High senior Ali Chan has spearheaded a Project Lunch Food Club at that school. "I am one of those people who has been lucky enough that my mother served me good, healthy food, and I have appreciated every moment of it," Chan says. "I really love good food. I wanted to share that." The club has 12 members "which is actually great," she says proudly. "We meet every Friday and we work with our food service, mostly doing student surveys and giving input to make the menu better. We did get resistance at first, mostly from students who wanted sugary foods or chocolate milk back, but now I feel like people are definitely becoming more aware. They know what healthy food looks like. It's a process." In Chan's opinion, education is the most important puzzle piece in that "process" because students' habits provide an enormous barrier to healthy eating.<br /> <br /> This reality is evidenced back at Novato High where Vice Principal Mark Peabody shakes his head as he watches a group of students stream past the cafeteria line and Villarreal's healthy lunch offerings toward a trio of ice cream trucks parked near the school entrance. "They are going to get their 'quick fix,'" he says. "That's what the sugar is for them." Villarreal nods and jumps in. "We are working with the city council on ordinances that will keep the ice cream trucks away. In the 1970s everyone was worried about alcohol coming onto the campuses. Now it's sugar. It's everywhere. The cheap junk food right there makes it hard for students to choose our food." Today, Junior Paul Nguyen has waited in line to get his "real food" lunch, but says the trucks are always tempting. "You don't have to wait in line, and junk food is cheaper. Everything is $1," he says, shrugging.<br /> <br /> Food service directors across the county will confirm that there are many barriers to improving students' diets: everything from under-staffed kitchens, to long-term binding contracts with vendors like Tyson Foods, to ice cream trucks circling the campuses. Much like a good growing season depends upon numerous factors coming together in just the right way, it takes several strong forces to redirect an institutionalized mindset and prioritize change. Leah Smith of AIM describes people like Judi Shils and Miguel Villarreal as "catalysts," and she herself has been part of a large network of people who have been working on these issues over the Past decade, setting the stage for breakthroughs.<br /> <br /> "Everything that is starting to happen now is because of the many people who have been working in what I call the Farm-to-School movement," Smith says. A few years ago, AIM initiated a program called Farm to Fork to link local agriculture directly with schools and other institutions. Now, AIM partners with Veritable Vegetable of San Francisco to deliver produce from farms within a 150–200 mile radius of the Bay Area (the greater "farm shed") to local school kitchens. AIM also operates eight farmers' markets in the Bay Area–including the popular Thursday and Sunday markets year-round at the Marin Civic Center in San Rafael–and they offer farmers' market tours to school children. They also provide in-class demonstrations and tastings.<br /> <br /> "We see our role as both advocates and educators," Smith says. "Every time the kids sit down in the lunch room they are learning something. If their food is anonymous, from a large corporation, or if it is not nutritious, we are teaching them that food is not valuable. We are passionate about teaching students the story of their food, to give the food meaning.Where it comes from. How it is grown. We have seen it time and time again–if students have a relationship with the food they are much more likely to eat it." And it is not only students they aim to inspire. "Sometimes a food service manager will come to our farmers' market program and suddenly feel inspired to try something new and healthier," Smith says.<br /> <br /> Like Smith, former Marin Organic Executive Director Helge Hellberg feels that the critical role of MO is to facilitate the logistics of the agricultural-institutional connection. "MO works with 50 schools. Each of those schools is dealing with 15 farmers. Can you imagine? They couldn't do it (without MO). MO has set up a distribution model to help the schools work with those 15 farmers." Every week MO invites members of the public, as well as school groups, to glean at one of the MO member farms in West Marin. Approximately 20% of any given harvest, as well as dairy and meat products, go unused and are available for gleaning. "The abundance is breathtaking," Hellberg says. "Only 10% of that unused 20% is now being used to feed 10,000 school children every week. Marin County agriculture could theoretically feed all Marin County school children." The additional benefit of this model is that, in exchange for receiving the gleaned food free of charge, the Schools are expected to use the savings to purchase additional food from local farmers and ranchers.<br /> <br /> At a recent Project Lunch gathering, activist parents exchanged information about the ways that they have taken school lunches into their own hands. Unwilling to wait for institutional change, some have gone directly to their school boards and PTAs to get approval to revamp the children's lunch services. Jenny Tippet, a parent from Neil Cummins Elementary School in Corte Madera, detailed the long campaign she and other parents waged, including State training for volunteer parent servers and an arduous State audit in order to bring the Good Earth Organic Lunch program to their cafeteria. Marielle Rutherford, a parent at the Novato Charter School, talked about that school's collaboration with Fresh Starts Catering, a vocational program at Marin's Homeward Bound homeless shelter, to develop a hot lunch program. Fresh Starts provides hot lunches for the school three times a week, and Novato Charter School students volunteer in the nearby Homeward Bound garden, sowing and harvesting the very vegetables that go into their meals.<br /> <br /> As these activists share their stories it becomes clear that the schools that they are involved with are all schools serving higher-income families and/or with exceptional parent involvement. They are trailblazing, hopefully paving the way for schools that are not so rich in resources. Novato High is an ideal pilot school for the Project Lunch campaign because it is part of a district serving many low-income students, but set within a wealthy county. "The goal with a school like Novato High," Shils tells the stakeholders, "is to transition from where they are now (and) create a program that excels and serves as a model for other similar schools."<br /> <br /> "Our goal is a completely different food service," says Villarreal in his final remarks to the Project Lunch gathering. "And quickly, because we're already on borrowed time."<br /> <br /> Novato Unified School District, www.nusd.org <br /> <br /> Project Lunch, www.projectlunch.org <br /> <br /> Marin Organic, www.marinorganic.org <br /> <br /> Marin Agricultural Institute, www.agriculturalinstitute.org<br /> <br /> Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist, poet and middle school gardening teacher at the Novato Charter School. She feels extraordinarily lucky to live with her family in a small rural corner of northern Marin County. Links to her work and organic gardening and food blog can be found at www.kirstenjonesneff.com.

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