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Dishing Out Health

news3Local school district gets creative in its ongoing fight for better nutrition

“Kids should be healthy and hunger-free,” states Jamie Smith, senior manager of Food Services for Santa Cruz City Schools (SCCS), matter-of-factly. “We practice what we preach.”

Smith came on board with Food Services more than three years ago, when he set about revolutionizing the way SCCS students are fed in school. Under his direction, uninspired school lunch staples like microwavable chicken nuggets and sugary sports drinks were replaced with homemade oatmeal, teriyaki rice bowls, fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables, and daily vegetarian options. In April 2011, he invented the Surf City Cafe, the result of an image makeover for the food served up in Santa Cruz elementary school cafeterias. The chef and his efforts have been widely recognized—even getting a shout out from Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. 

“Jamie [Smith] is an agent of chaos—he wants to turn everything on its head and show everyone that there’s a new way to look at this that will get the kids to try nutritious food, and to hopefully like it, and to not go hungry during the day,” says Nick Stefanko, who has worked with Food Services as a warehouseman and delivery driver for almost 10 years.

This school year, Smith has piloted some additional changes, including, for example, the implementation of a “Second Chance” breakfast every morning, which is available at First Recess for only $1 if kids have already had breakfast in the café before school. Eating a healthy breakfast, states the café’s breakfast menu, will “help improve academic performance, behavior and children who regularly eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight; they do not become extremely hungry later in the day and overeat.”

Smith is also working to implement refillable water stations in the schools to help phase plastic packaging out of the food stream. “We’re going to keep looking for every environmental opportunity we can,” Smith says.

But three years into their mission to bring real and healthy foods back into local schools, Smith and his team have encountered some complications as a result of USDA regulations and health guidelines.

“We’re shackled by USDA and FDA, where we can’t do anything that could be unsanitary or create undue liability to the school ... [but] we try to go back to how things used to be with home-style cooking,” says Stefanko. The crew buys produce and prepares all components of each meal they serve at their central kitchen at Harbor High School, though, according to regulations, everything has to be pre-packaged before being delivered to each school. “It looks like a TV dinner when it gets delivered to the kids,” Smith says.

But the USDA is not all about creating roadblocks, adds Smith. He feels that some new, more health-driven USDA guidelines that have been set forth, such as that there be a daily serving of fruits and veggies, ”plus a weekly requirement for dark green, red/orange, beans/pea (legumes), starchy, and ‘other’ vegetables”—are a step in the right direction.

“We’ve been [providing healthy foods] anyway,” Smith says. “And when you buy in season, it’s often cheaper, too.” Being in fruitful Santa Cruz County certainly helps, and items like apples are provided to Food Services from local farms, straight off the trees.

But providing healthier foods does not necessarily mean the students will eat them, and one of the main challenges Food Services has faced throughout this three-year menu upheaval has been “making stuff the kids would actually eat,” in Stefanko’s words. 

One successful solution to this problem has been the introduction of an ever-changing salad bar, which helps to encourage salad as a main part of each meal. “We don’t do it to say, ‘Here, we have a salad bar,’ and that’s it,” Smith says. Instead, he says they offer theme days, like taco salad days, where kids are given free reign of a salad bar that’s chock full of veggie-rich toppings, ranging from salsa, to lettuce, to low-fat sour cream, to shredded cheese, all to use for decking out their taco shells.

Smith says he has observed the most success in healthy eating choices when the children are given options. To promote more diverse choices, Smith oversaw the implementation of a broader selection of items included under each specific category, including specialty local fruits and vegetables depending on the season.

In the face of budget limitations, the department is attempting to fulfill its multi-pronged mission in other creative ways, such as through food education programs that aim to help keep both students and families up to speed on how to continue a nutritious eating plan at home. In addition to programs like “Passion for Produce,” “Farmer of the Month,” student cooking classes, and other garden-based education, Food Services provides calendars that list all of the meals that they are planning for the school year, including recipes that encourage families to try making them at home.

“We want to have people, particularly the kids, start thinking a little bit more about not just what they’re eating, but what’s in it,” says Stefanko.

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