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Let Them Eat Junk

In our affluent communities, where kids have every privelege, why can't they get a decent lunch?



Hart Middle School, Pleasanton
Food Styling by Kim Konecny

It’s four in the morning on a Friday at Del Rey Elementary on Camino Moraga in Orinda.
The building is empty, but outside the lunchroom, boxes of fresh strawberries stand undisturbed in the predawn chill. Hillcrest Produce in Pleasant Hill has just completed its “dark drop” of produce for the parent-run school lunch program known as the Dolphin Deli. By midmorning, Caryl Morrison, an energetic parent volunteer, will be rinsing the berries in a large colander in the school’s 1960s-era kitchen. By 11:45 a.m., the fruit will have been washed and sliced for serving at one of the Variety Bars. The bars boast 23 tasty and nutritious items, from Caesar salad to string cheese, jicama, hummus, grapes, and watermelon. When the children come through the lunch line that day, they’ll have a choice of chicken-filled pot stickers, cucumber maki, or chicken teriyaki. Each entrée is served with steamed rice and edamame.

Del Rey Elementary, Orinda
Food Styling by Kim Konecny

It’s a healthy scene befitting Orinda, where moms and dads are often exurban yuppies who work out and order their lattes nonfat. But it’s a scene seldom repeated in the public schools in much of the rest of our health-conscious region. Visits to numerous schools in the Orinda Union, San Ramon Valley, and Pleasanton school districts reveal that not all lunch programs are alike in Diabloland, and some schools are feeding children in a style that seems almost alien to our community’s level of affluence.

Most of our schools have very few students who are eligible for government-subsidized meals, yet many programs rely on government-surplus ingredients, particularly meat and cheese, to the maximum extent possible. These are ingredients that the government buys to subsidize the agricultural industry and then gives to schools for free. The food is sent to factories for cooking and processing before arriving in districts in the form of frozen chicken nuggets or hamburgers, for instance, which are often stored for months before being served. In middle and high school settings, our cafeterias also sell large amounts of food in the form of à la carte snack items, such as S’mores Pop-Tarts and pink Gatorade, rather than whole meals.

The food that students bring from home suggests that parents come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds concerning nutrition awareness and time available for home cooking. Lunch from home might be a turkey sandwich on a baguette, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with Fig Newtons, sodium-and-fat-packed Lunchables of processed American cheese and deli meat served with white crackers, or bags of Doritos corn chips and Oreo cookies washed down with “fruit” drinks such as Capri Sun and Shasta soda.

It’s fair to ask why children’s diets should bear such scrutiny. If parents want to feed their children both Ding Dongs and packaged Rice Krispies Treats at lunch—as one parent did last spring—isn’t that their business? And if our middle and high schools sell Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and McDonald’s hamburgers every day, isn’t it the student’s choice to buy them or not? The trouble with these questions is that the theoretical issues of individual responsibility have long ago been outstripped by a crisis in children’s health.

One of every six children in the United States is overweight, and the rate of childhood obesity has quadrupled since the 1960s. Type 2 diabetes can no longer be referred to as “adult onset,” because it has become so common in children. Although African American, Hispanic, and low-income children bear the brunt of these symptoms, the problems are significant even in relatively white, relatively wealthy communities. In Orinda, Walnut Creek, and San Ramon, for example, between 17 and 20 percent of fifth-graders can’t pass the state aerobics tests, and in Pleasanton, 19 percent of fifth-graders are overweight, according to the latest California Physical Fitness Test.

Aside from the onslaught of childhood obesity and diabetes, pediatricians have discovered that better nutrition—a diet based on vegetables and grains, with lean protein and minimal sugar and fat—helps children learn and develop. Such a diet also helps stave off heart disease, stroke, cancer, and weight problems later in life. Even if a child isn’t overweight, a lunch of rice, chicken teriyaki, green vegetables, and fruit will serve her better than a slice of pepperoni pizza and a chocolate milk. “Children need nutritious food in order to concentrate,” says Sharon Dodson, a nurse in the San Ramon Valley school district. “Even if a child is a normal weight, it should be a goal to follow the USDA food pyramid, which has changed quite a bit in recent years.”

The problem with the pizza, milk, and fruit lunch so often seen in schools today is that even if it doesn’t have too many calories, or too much fat or sodium, it lacks the nutrition and dietary diversity—again, based on vegetables and grains with fruit, dairy, and meat in smaller quantities—that even the USDA, hardly a source of radical health advice, now explicitly recommends.

In a community where our children have every privilege, whether an iPhone, spa treatments, or skiing lessons, why aren’t we feeding them better?

The caliber of the Dolphin Deli, which combines its impressive fruit and vegetable bars with entrées from local restaurants such as the Pasta Stop and La Cocina, owes everything to its parent volunteers and one woman in particular, Beth Marks. Five years ago, when Marks’s daughter started second grade at the school, she visited the cafeteria. “I was horrified by what I saw,” says Marks. “Lunch consisted of a big old nasty Taco Bell quesadilla in a fast-food wrapper, four Oreo cookies, and two slices of orange.” Marks and a friend, Robin Bradley, decided to take over the school lunch program. Under the auspices of the Del Rey Parents’ Club, Marks developed a healthier menu, worked with local restaurants to supply the entrées, and organized parents to volunteer as the cafeteria’s employees. The result is a $156,000 per year operation that serves more than 1,400 lunches weekly and nets over $60,000 each year, which goes to pay the salary of the PE teacher.

Sleepy Hollow Elementary, Orinda
Food Styling by Kim Konecny

Response to the Dolphin Deli has been overwhelmingly positive, and at least 77 percent of the school’s 364 students buy their lunch there on any given day. “I really appreciate having the lunch,” says Clancy, a Del Rey fourth-grader. “It’s really healthy and it tastes great.” His friend Ray adds, “Today is Japanese food day. I had kappa maki, edamame, and rice. It’s great.” Ari, another friend, seems thrilled to point out that, “they’ve eliminated chocolate milk and the ice cream bars they used to sell.”

It may seem shocking that 10-year-old boys would part so easily with their chocolate milk and ice cream bars, but the program does offer dessert—fruit smoothies, as well as appealing sliced fresh oranges, watermelon, and grapes along with vanilla yogurt. And the students at Del Rey seem finely attuned to today’s gourmet food trends. One student said the Variety Bar’s string cheese is “organic and from Wisconsin.” It isn’t either of those things, but the child’s impulse to tout the cheese’s source is telling and may have its roots not only in his privileged upbringing but also in something that’s happening at Del Rey outside its lunchroom.

A brief walk down a pathway lined with oak trees stands the school’s garden, a small patch alive with plants. Rainbow chard, yellow daisies, and pea shoots are all in full bloom, and fruit and vegetable scraps from the lunchroom contribute to a compost bin in the corner. “I’m volunteering and I love it,” says Yvonne Fuhriman, the garden coordinator and a mother of five children—four who have passed through Del Rey and one who is a current student. Her sessions with students include gardening lessons and activities designed to correlate with what children are learning in the classroom. For instance, orange marigolds are planted in concentric circles so students can use the flowers to learn geometry, an idea taken from the Lawrence Hall of Science’s Math in the Garden curriculum. At the same time, students learn about food. “We’ve taken some of our harvests up to the kitchen,” says Fuhriman. “We just had about 15 pints of peas in the pod. The garden expands their knowledge base. They’re more likely to eat something if they’re part of the growing process.”
Research backs up Fuhriman’s assertion. Studies published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association have found that garden curriculums improve children’s knowledge of nutrition as well as their affinity for vegetables.

Researchers who study childhood eating patterns also find that kids follow the example of the adults around them. At Del Rey, more than half the staff like the Dolphin Deli enough to buy their own lunch there, often feasting on vegetables and salad from the Variety Bar. “We call ourselves the five-day-a-week queens,” says kindergarten teacher Margaret Sawyer, who frequents the lunchroom Monday through Friday with fifth-grade teacher Marjie Musante. While the last students finish lunch, Marks’s volunteers sit down and dine on the same food they have just served the children.

That same modeling isn’t taking place everywhere. In the San Ramon Valley school district, for example, one elementary school principal often picks up a burger, fries, and a shake from In-N-Out and eats it in the cafeteria once he’s finished talking to the students on a bullhorn during their lunch period. The San Ramon Valley district, home to 33 schools, has contracted with Sodexho, an industrial food and facilities management company that offers a wide variety of food services—from the catering at Marriott Hotels to supplying the cafeterias at rest homes, military bases, colleges, and zoos.

In San Ramon Valley schools, about 50 percent of the district’s 25,000-plus students buy their lunch at the cafeteria. The elementary school meals, whether the healthy chicken Caesar salad or the not-so-healthy corn dog, are prepared in the district’s central kitchen at California High. They are then loaded onto carts and rolled onto trucks, which transport them to the elementary schools where they are “rethermalized.”

The program uses as much government surplus food as it is allowed, most often meat and cheese. A few of the elementary schools have a salad bar known as the Color My World Bar, but the bar’s produce is lackluster. At the middle and high schools, packaged processed food is ubiquitous in the cafeterias. As recently as last year, the program offered Cup O’ Noodles, Otis Spunkmeyer frosted brownies, and Funyuns. Such fare has caught the attention of the California State Legislature, which in recent years has passed numerous bills to improve cafeteria food, including two—Senate Bills 12 and 965—that went into effect this fall. The bills, which aim to ban the sale of junk food at all grade levels, restrict the fat, sodium, sugar, and calories that cafeteria food may contain, and limit soda to no more than half of beverage sales at high schools (the sale of soda was outlawed in 2004 at elementary and middle schools). School districts were expected to stop selling items such as Chips Ahoy! cookies and Lay’s potato chips to comply with the new laws, but food manufacturers have already reformulated the products so schools can go on selling them.

The law does not limit the number of à la carte items a student can buy. Snack food sales are particularly high in affluent districts where students have cash and the food programs can’t rely on government reimbursements.

“Your more affluent school districts live or die by à la carte sales,” says Rodney Taylor, a longtime food service director in Southern California, who has worked in such districts as Santa Monica–Malibu. “With minimal government reimbursement for meals, school food service directors have to have another way to bring in dollars—and snack foods sell.”

That’s certainly the case in San Ramon Valley schools, where last year à la carte sales totaled more than $2.6 million as compared with less than $1.8 million for sales of complete lunches.

Sodexho often helps school districts that are losing money in their cafeterias get back in the black by enticing more kids to buy food at school. The large, multinational conglomerate offers buying power that can save districts money when purchasing food. But the company stocks the cafeterias with the snack foods children buy most, and snack foods aren’t what is healthiest.

According to Sodexho’s service contract with the district, the district pays Sodexho more for the snack food it sells than for the whole meals—the company gets six cents for every dollar of à la carte sales but only six cents per lunch when it sells meals, which cost between $3 and $3.50. And based on observations from several visits to district schools, the bulk of what students eat in elementary schools is pizza and hamburgers, and in middle and high schools the same, plus chips, cookies, and sports drinks. Sodexho offers some salad bars with toppings such as pasta salad and marinated tofu. But these options are not available at the elementary school level, and the older students have to choose the salad bar over another item when buying a meal.

The restrictions on these meals and the abundance of packaged foods in school cafeterias are making it difficult for children to know how to eat well. If we want kids to learn to love vegetables and other healthy whole foods, they must be consistently available and appealing, and built into every menu. Veggies should be all-you-can-eat and served alongside a satisfying, healthy entrée. These meals shouldn’t face overwhelming daily competition by aggressively marketed quick-fix snacks.

The kind of menu offered by Sodexho isn’t limited to San Ramon Valley schools. The food in the Pleasanton school district is at times worse, even though Pleasanton runs its own lunch program with a district employee, Frank Castro, at the helm. Meals in the district cost from $3 to $4, but at the middle and high schools, à la carte sales are more common. Gooey iced cinnamon buns sell like crazy during the morning snack time at Amador Valley High, along with strawberry bagels, chocolate milk, and Frosted Flakes. During lunch at Hart Middle, Linda’s chocolate chip cookies, a “thaw and serve” product, are hugely popular, as are McDonald’s cheeseburgers, nacho cheese–flavored tortilla chips, french fries, barbecue potato chips, and packages of Oreo cookies (all of which have been selected or altered to comply with the new nutrition requirements of Senate Bill 12). There are salad bars, too, but given the extensive array of packaged foods, few children go near them.

At Foothill High, Castro has instituted a healthy baked potato bar on Fridays that also offers salad makings and vegetarian lasagna. This new “meal line,” where lunch costs $4, has been such a hit, especially with health- and weight-conscious female students, that it often sells out. Still, a visit to the school reveals that many more of the teenagers are going through the “speed lines,” where they can pick up a bag of potato chips and a sweet juice drink.

On a visit to Valley View Elementary last May, a reporter noted that Castro’s crew put out a bowl of peaches for the kindergartners, but they were rock hard and still bore stickers. The few youngsters who took them didn’t manage more than a couple of bites. That same day, Castro happened to comment that local cherries were at peak season.

Back in San Ramon, at Neil Armstrong Elementary, employee Cathy Nicholson scraped raw broccoli florets into the garbage after lunch one day last spring. The children hadn’t taken the broccoli from the Color My World bar. “I hate to throw them away, but they won’t keep,” she says. Food program directors say that blanching broccoli is impractical, but it’s the sort of preparation that makes dark green vegetables—the kind we need most—more appealing. It often seems that nothing can replace a human being preparing fresh food. “You know what they love?” asks Nicholson. “The kiwis. I have to get here an hour early to peel and slice each one because they won’t eat them with the skin on.

“It’s worth it to peel those kiwis,” she says, “because they eat them. I have to
refill the tray.”

Every item on the Dolphin Deli’s Variety Bar is as tempting and delicious—and often as labor-intensive—as Nicholson’s smash-hit kiwis. So how does this Orinda school pull it off? The Dolphin Deli offers only healthy food, the kids go through the Variety Bar of their own accord and devour the nutritious food on their plates, and the program makes money.

“We have 125 parent volunteers,” says Marks. “They work a two-and-a-half-hour shift at least once a month.” This infusion of free labor, equal to at least $50,000 a year, is in good part what allows the program to afford high-quality entrées, prepare fresh produce daily, and sell the food for just $3.75 per lunch. “We are only as strong as our most passionate volunteers,” says Marks.

The truth of Marks’s observation is illustrated at Glorietta Elementary, another school in the Orinda Union district. Glorietta pioneered the sort of lunch program Del Rey now maintains, but in recent years its parent-run program has suffered from a lack of volunteers. The meal service is getting back on its feet, but stability will always be a challenge for programs run by parents.

At Sleepy Hollow Elementary, in another affluent Orinda neighborhood, parent volunteers administer the school lunch program but have contracted it out to a popular school caterer called Children’s Choice. The resulting program is not as good as the Dolphin Deli.

Although Danville-based Children’s Choice touts its use of grass-fed beef and locally grown, organic produce, the hamburgers it serves at Sleepy Hollow tasted no better than those at other schools, and the meals, which cost $4, are sealed shut and sweating in rectangular containers. Fresh fruits and vegetables (occasionally oxidized or still bearing a bit of silty dirt) are available in Ziploc bags, and students may take just one—either a fruit or a vegetable. Students may also take one other snack item such as sunflower seeds or fruit leather, but warm chocolate chip cookies, offered every day, are by far the top pick.

The lunchrooms with the healthiest meals are found at schools where parents have taken over the lunch program and are committed to making fresh food for their kids. At the Dolphin Deli, parents even roast baby potatoes. Del Rey’s and Glorietta’s programs are some of the only ones in our community that don’t have at the heart of their meals prepackaged entrées or entrées based on government surplus ingredients. This is not to say that districtwide, statewide, and even national initiatives to improve school nutrition haven’t had an impact. First-graders in San Ramon enjoy the kiwis at the Color My World Bar, and in Pleasanton some students at Amador Valley High pick up the lowfat wrap sandwiches that come with grapes or strawberries. But these healthier offerings are the exceptions.

As with many aspects of our public schools, parents’ intervention is needed to bring up quality. Parents, already pressured to the max to volunteer their time, might say, “Academics are more important than lunch. Don’t distract from the basics.” But kids need nutritious food, as well as physical exercise, to help them learn those basics.

All of which leaves parents in a difficult position. Should you pack your kid’s lunch? Volunteer in the cafeteria? Or march on Capitol Hill? Maybe you should consider all three. If not, it’s catch-as-catch-can.

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