T he intersection of taste and nutrition has challenged a nation obsessed with an ever-evolving notion of what it means to be healthy – and nowhere more evidently than in feeding the children of America’s public schools.
In Richmond, a city in which 51 percent of students in grades 5, 7 and 9 were obese or overweight in 2010 and where two-thirds of students are from families near and below the national poverty line, how to feed the children, what to feed the children — and if the children choose to eat what they’re fed — has created a world of dietary perplexity.
In the West Contra Costa Unified School District’s Food Service Department, those questions come up every day as the department tries to meet federal standards while providing meals for 30,000 students. The cafeterias at Ford Elementary, Lovonya DeJean Middle and Richmond High provide a glimpse into the chain of command that influences the lunches Richmond’s youth eat five days a week for up to 13 years.
T he heart of the cafeteria at Ford and DeJean is the speedline. Sliding doors on the top of the unit guard the day’s goodies – keeping the hot items warm and the cold items cool until lunchtime.
Around 11 a.m. at Ford, the smell of the main entrée seeps from the kitchen, giving students a hint of what will be served. As they enter, each child grabs a tray made from recycled paperboard and fills the tray with entree, sides and drinks.
At DeJean, two speedlines and a team of seven help to serve hungry middle school students. Colorful posters inscribed with cartoonish images relaying the importance of nutrition adorn the walls.
Here students have snack bar options offered at a la carte rates; brownies and sparkling drinks give many students a sweet fix that cannot be sated by the main line.
At Richmond High, speedlines have been cast aside and five full-service bays greet the adolescents. While the other schools’ lunches are self-serve, here eight food service clerks plate the meal options and hand them to students over a plastic sneeze-guard. Two a la carte stands, offering favorites like spicy chips and sports drinks, often have lines as long as the service bays.’
The eaters at each school are different: different ages, different tastes, different needs, but the schools all have to meet the same underlying objective: compliance with the National School Lunch Program.
T he National School Lunch Program was established in 1946 to provide states with federal aid for school lunch. The Child Nutrition Act of 1966 elaborated and added new standards to recognize the “relationship between food and good nutrition and the capacity of children to develop and learn.”
Over the last decade the United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees policy for school lunches, has made some of the most notable changes. In 2004 the USDA required schools to provide milk alternatives for students with diet restrictions, and in 2010 the Healthy, Hunger-Free-Kids Act required schools to provide water with all meals.
As the prevalence of obesity among schoolchildren has increased, the program has focused more on nutrition and on scientific work conducted by the National Academy of Sciences and Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a report published every five years.
Research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control suggest that in the last 20 years obesity in school-aged children in the country has nearly tripled – about 12.5 million children are overweight or obese.
The most recent change to the NSLP, in January, ordered schools to increase the availability of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, while gradually lowering the fat and sodium contents in meals.
Free and reduced lunch is offered to qualifying students – which most are in Richmond, according to the California Department of Education. One hundred percent of Ford students, 86 percent of DeJean students and 76 percent of Richmond High students are eligible for free or reduced-price meals.
But with federally funded lunch comes the mandate: each tray must have items that constitute a balanced meal, whether or not the student likes the options. Food service clerks oversee the meal service to ensure these requirements are met.
Susan Liles, a registered dietician and the WCCUSD’s nutrition specialist and menu planner, said her main goal is to “meet the taste needs of the students while giving them the nutrition they need.”
The challenge is most pressing at the elementary school age, she said, because school meals have the opportunity to “set up tastes for the rest of their life.”
T he Richmond schools’ food story begins at the elementary level, which may have the most easily appeased clientele, and progresses to high school where larger, more demanding patrons abide.
At Ford, the district was meeting nutrition but not taste requirements – and a group of 5th graders asked for change.
“The students wrote a letter of protest to the food service department,” Ford Principal Barbara Penny-James said. The department responded with an apology and a taste test in which the children rated some of the food items to be included in their menu.
Since then many students say they like the food selection. On a recent Wednesday, students were able to choose a BBQ chicken quesadilla, a turkey sandwich, or a fruit & cheese plate, plus celery & ranch and a fresh pear. A carton of milk rounds out the USDA-requirement meal.
The students may not be fully aware of the research, planning and deliberation devoted to selecting their meal options, but most said they enjoy the food. The sixth graders were the most vocal. Many said the fruits and vegetables were their favorite items, and nearly all agreed the food had improved since last year, when they moved from temporary classrooms to a newly constructed campus.
But the district’s standards are not necessarily reflected in students’ homes.
“If parents take them to McDonalds all the time, they might not like this food,” said Pamela Palmer, Ford’s food service manager, who has been with the district for three years.
Liles said she hopes students leave the elementary school stage with healthy nutritional education and habits that will last throughout their schooling experience and life – or at least until middle school.
At DeJean Middle, the federal meal specifications begin to infringe upon the students dietary wants, leaving some wanting more.
After eating many of the students “are still hungry, but we can’t give more food to them,” said one food service clerk, Latasha Crockett.
The menu posted on the cafeteria wall showed daily specials on the left side that change every day and daily entrees on the right. On a recent Tuesday a chicken teriyaki bowl was the special entrée – but the cafeteria had run out of the bowls before the end of its second lunch shift.
“Sometimes they run out of food so we have to wait until they bring more food and if lunch is over we have to go to class,” said one 8th grader. “When I go home I gotta eat a lot because I barely ate at school.”
Some students resort to nearby Culiacan Taqueria and Grill to sate their hunger after school.
“Usually I have a lot of customers in the afternoon,” said Angela Reyes, who works at Culiacan. “It depends on how much allowance they have.”
Reyes gives student discounts to her young afternoon patrons, charging 50 cents for a bag of chips that costs 75 cents at DeJean. She said students often buy soda — another item not served by the district – to go with their tacos.
This school year, WCCUSD middle schools have also felt the crunch of necessary dietary cutbacks – such as a strict whole-grain requirement that ruled out potato chips with hamburgers.
Now students can find chips at the snack bar for 75 cents.
A one-ounce bag of Cheetos has 130 calories and 150 mg of sodium, making it an obvious target at the district level — but not necessarily for the kids, who tended to say they missed their chips.
Still, the district and the schools try to be responsive.
“We look at what they’re really eating and focus on that the most,” Dejean food service manager Tracy Hollins said.
A lunch survey, for example, showed students liked broccoli better when there was ranch dressing for dipping. And then there was ranch.
Spicy chicken patties (“spicies”) are another favorite, so they are almost always available. The weekly specials, however, are variable and more susceptible to running out.
Hollins said middle school students “change their minds’ like that,” snapping to emphasize her point, which makes it difficult to estimate quantity and place food orders.
B ut high schoolers can make it even more of a challenge. At Richmond High students are offered many of the same items as the middle school, but the students’ seem more concerned with portion size than palatability.
Richmond’s target calorie range is 750-850 calories per meal, in compliance with NSLP standards. Daily recommended calorie levels are around 2,400 for active girls and 3,000 for active boys, and while three 850-calorie meals gets pretty close to that allowance, many of the students said lunch left them hungry.
But the district is stuck: under NSLP law, schools are not allowed to exceed the mandated calorie count. If a school is out of compliance with state and federal regulations on school lunch, it must reimburse the misappropriated funds.
To reinforce the point, a sign in the Richmond High serving area reads, “No supersizing! Your lunch tray has the right portion sizes.”
“We have not had any complaints from students who said they were slightly hungry after lunch,” said Tina Jung, a spokesperson for the California Department of Education. School lunch is intended to provide one-third of a day’s calories and if all portions are consumed a child should be full. If that’s not enough, a child can purchase a second lunch, she said.
An elementary school lunch costs $2.00, and middle and high school is $2.50.
Food service representatives on the secondary levels said they were not allowed to serve seconds. The WCCUSD Nutrition Center, where many of the district’s meals are made, said it is continuing training and will follow up.
Deep-fried and non-whole grain foods may make students fuller, but they also have been shown to make students fatter, which is why Jung said deep fryers were banned and all grains will soon be whole.
M uch like at DeJean, Richmond High students often resort to finding food elsewhere. On a recent Tuesday, Misael Valdivia, a junior, was returning to school just after lunch had ended with three McChicken meals with cokes from McDonalds.
Jorge Diaz, a senior and captain on the football team, said the portions aren’t large enough to fill most of the players on his team, who burn hundreds of calories on the practice field. “I’ll have somebody bring me a burrito” from a nearby taco shop, he said, and some other players bring additional food.
The availability of unhealthy after-school food is a part of the problem, said Gail Lopez, a registered dietician and associate director of UC Berkeley’s Center for Weight and Health.
“Among low income families and communities of color, the surrounding community makes unhealthy foods cheaper, accessible and taste better,” she said.
Food servers said, though, that state and federal requirements may not agree with children’s preferences. “Some of the kids aren’t that happy about the changes,” food services manager Carolyn Wolridge said. “With us trying to follow state guidelines, it’s hard for us to give them what they want.”
Richmond High students can also add calories at the school’s snack bar. One of the food service clerks said she sells about 130 bags of baked hot Cheetos per lunch period. It’s not just chips that are gone from the official school lunch: water bottles and a la carte Gatorade drinks have been downsized, too. So while students favor the snack bars, they reminisce upon years past when chips were free and Gatorades were deep.
M any of the problems feeding Richmond kids are just a reminder that school-aged youth – anywhere — are one of the most difficult audiences to please.
At the elementary school level, Liles rewards good nutrition choices by giving stickers to and taking the names and photos of students who eat fruit and veggies. Ford will also be the new site of one of two salad bars added to district elementary schools by year’s end.
This is one part of a grant-funded program running in three other WCCUSD elementary schools called Energy Balance 4 Kids with Play, which encourages nutrition, exercise and energy balance knowledge.
Maternal and child health expert Cheri Pies, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said implementing community programming is key in improving health outcomes, especially in lower income areas. You can’t just tell people “you need to eat healthier,” she said — instead, health experts need to suggest lifestyle changes that lead to better health.
Lopez suggested marketing to try and convince students of their food’s value. “Most kids don’t think of school food as appealing or healthy,” she said.
Student input and involvement is also important. At Ford, student requests led to the overhaul of the entire menu. But Liles said it’s much harder to get information from secondary-school students.
At the Richmond-based nutrition center, where 5 million meals a year for all the schools in the WCCUSD are prepared under the direction of Barbara Jellison, the nutritional requirements meet the taste requests.
Jellison’s solution for more healthy food echoed Liles’ – nutrition education for students and staff. An informed staff can better encourage healthy choices and a knowledgeable student body can begin creating healthier habits, she said.
Still the nutrition staff faces what Lopez called an age-old challenge: “If you serve it, will they eat it?”
The answer: Yes, if they like it.
Jellison has tried to appeal to students with new food offerings. And although there are plenty of challenges, she said the variety on display in lunchrooms across the district shows that they’ve come a long way.
“When I started 12 years ago, the only veggies we had were carrots,” she said.