It Takes A Village To Transform School Lunches

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West Contra Costa School District Takes First Step Toward Fresh, Local Food Service

More than 70% of students said they “really liked” the fresh, local, organic meals served at their school during the Conscious Kitchen week.

By Stacy Malkan

Nevertheless, she persisted. Judi Shils refuses to see barriers in the way of her goal to help transform food service at California’s West Contra Costa Unified School District.

There are many barriers, of course, to bringing fresh, organic, locally grown food to students and teachers in a district that serves 30,000 meals a day at 55 schools to many students who live under the poverty line.

Thanks to a robust community partnership – a collaboration of farmers, chefs, school district officials, parents, teachers and businesses – the East Bay Area district took the first step to show what’s possible, serving made-from-scratch organic breakfasts and lunches to 1,200 students and teachers at two schools Jan. 30-Feb. 3.

The program, called The Conscious Kitchen and organized by Shils’ nonprofit group Turning Green, aims to shift the paradigm of school food service to a framework they call FLOSN: fresh, local, organic, seasonal, non-GMO.

Shils began working last spring with parents, teachers and principles to create the “Taste of the Conscious Kitchen,” a weeklong demonstration of FLOSN meals at Peres Elementary School in Richmond and El Cerrito’s Madera Elementary.

The project involved 14 chefs cooking made-from-scratch FLOSN food (menus here), with all food sourced from local organic farmers, ranchers and purveyors, and meals exceeding the USDA National School Lunch Program nutritional guidelines.

While some have criticized “swoop-in-and-fix” efforts to change school food – for example, a recent Huffington Post story about the “Revenge of the Lunch Lady” who salvaged a made-for-TV food-fix flop in a West Virginia district – the Conscious Kitchen model is rooted in community partnerships built over the long term, and the belief that it takes a village to feed school children well.

The demonstration week indeed took a village: chefs donated time, servers volunteered, local farmers and purveyors donated much of the food, a crowd-funding campaign raised $5,000 and Patagonia, Clif Bar Family Foundation and Dr. Bronner’s Family Foundation (which also provides funds to my group US Right to Know) underwrote the rest.

“Food has a way of galvanizing communities,” Shils said. “All these stakeholders came together with the shared goal of health and wellness for our children.“

“I really liked it” 

Unlike some other school-food-improvement efforts, students at Peres and Madera responded enthusiastically to the change to fresh whole foods, as well as the spruced up cafeteria atmosphere. At Peres, for example, tables were turned so students sat facing each other.

“I don’t like it when the chefs are not here,” Aaliyah, a second grader at Peres, told me. “The tables are different and the food is awful, like burned hot dogs. I wish the chefs were here every day.” She wasn’t eating everything on her FLOSN plate, but she was willing to try the fresh orange slices and her favorite food so far was the broccoli.

Initial survey results are positive: 72-79 percent of students reported they “really liked” the food served at Peres in the first few days, and only 7 percent reported they “didn’t like it much” or “hated it.”

Lisa LeBlanc, Associate Superintendent at the WCCU District, said she was happy to see the students staying longer in the dining hall and enjoying healthy and delicious food. “If they are eating more nutritionally and eating more, it really helps with student achievement,” she said.

“If they are eating more nutritionally and eating more, it really helps with student achievement.”

LeBlanc spent four of the five days eating with students, and her favorite moment was sitting with a student who had never seen roasted cauliflower before. “I sat next to her and encouraged her and showed her the placard on the table (that explained the vegetable). She ate the whole pile of cauliflower.”

Karla, a sixth grader at Peres, told me, “I think the school is rich when they do healthy food. When they do the other food, I feel like it’s poor.”

Which raises the biggest barrier to transforming school food systems: money. “It does cost more to do this than what we’re spending currently,” LeBlanc said, though exact cost comparisons are difficult to make.

The maximum rate of reimbursement for school lunches from the USDA program in the current school year is $2.04 for breakfast and $3.39 for lunch for students identified as severe need, while paid-for meals are reimbursed at a low of 29 cents for breakfast and 44 cents for lunch. Many students in the West Contra Costa district qualify for reduced-fee or free lunches.

A typical Conscious Kitchen breakfast (sample menu of yogurt, oatmeal or granola, fruit and milk) has an average food cost of $1.35, while a lunch (such as BBQ chicken drumsticks, roasted cauliflower, oranges and milk) averages about $2.50 – but that doesn’t include labor costs or kitchen equipment needs, which vary by school.

The Conscious Kitchen has already demonstrated it’s possible to shift a school district to their model, albeit a much smaller one.

The two schools in the Sausalito Marin City School District, one of which serves a low-income population, are permanently serving organic, non-GMO meals to about 500 students a day, the first public school district in the nation to do so, according to Shils. Turning Green is working to expand that program in Marin County this year.

“Our children have a right to fresh healthy organic food to nourish their minds and bodies every single day,” Shils said. “We all have a responsibility to be the stewards of our children and it begins with nourishing food.”

This week, LeBlanc, Shils and other partners will meet to discuss next steps and what it will take to continue the work of transforming food service in West Contra Costa – a village of support. “We have a commitment to explore this in the district, and ultimately it will be a Board of Education decision,” LeBlanc said.

“It’s going to take everyone in the community coming together to make this happen, to feed the children the best food we can particularly in the schools that need it most,” Shils said.