No More Tater Tots? California Schools Put Healthier Lunches To The Test

(Natalia Klenova/EyeEm/Getty Images)

When Miguel Villarreal addresses a crowded education conference, a group of school district administrators or a room full of curious parents, he often holds aloft a foil-wrapped package of Pop-Tarts — the heavily processed, high-sugar snack routinely sold on school campuses.

Villarreal, who oversees nutrition for the San Ramon Valley Unified School District in Northern California, then speaks clearly and loudly as he unloads the news: “School food services are completely broken.”

Can they be fixed? Villarreal and other school nutrition crusaders are trying to do that for this generation of students not only by providing more nutritious lunches but also by taking advantage of some surprising cost savings that come with fresher food.

From a multipronged attempt to reshape student lunches in Oakland to the addition of vegan options in the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District, K-12 schools across California are rethinking and reformulating student meals.

They are not alone. Minneapolis schools long ago began phasing out processed foods, replacing them with locally sourced, fresh choices that have proved popular. Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the nation’s fourth-largest school district, expanded its plant-based menu options and began offering free daily breakfast to every student — a clear recognition of the significant role schools play in the nutrition of many students.

“It is a movement,” said Villarreal, an industry pioneer who ran the food program in Marin County’s Novato Unified School District for 17 years. “Slowly but surely, others are coming on board. But there are always challenges.”

A new challenge is a federal directive from the Trump administration to roll back Obama-era standards that called for less sodium, more whole-grain foods and fewer sweetened milk drinks in school lunches. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it was easing those standards in recognition of “the persistent menu-planning challenges experienced by some schools,” both budgetary and cultural.

California and five other states are suing to block the action.

Inauspiciously, the USDA’s analysis suggests that some 500,000 schoolchildren may lose their free or reduced-cost lunches altogether because of the agency’s recently announced plan to tighten eligibility requirements for food stamps. Many students qualify for school nutrition programs as a result of their families’ food stamp eligibility.

The push for fresh ingredients, whole foods and fewer meat-based meals must pass a crucial litmus test: the students’ palates.

“I don’t want fillers; I want winners,” said Manish Singh, food services director for the Los Angeles Unified School District, with an enrollment of more than 730,000. “If the students don’t like it and don’t eat it, we have not succeeded. And we can’t afford not to succeed.”

Success is important because about 1 in 5 children ages 2 to 19, or roughly 14 million kids, were obese in 2015-16, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In California, close to one-third of children ages 10 to 17 are considered overweight or obese. Unhealthy diets are a big reason.

The benefit of nutritious food for students has been well documented. Numerous studies draw a direct link between higher-quality meals and better brain function, including improved academic performance.

For those who survived the era in which fish sticks and tater tots passed as a good day in school cafeterias, a visit to a contemporary K-12 lunchroom in Oakland is illuminating. Tables abound with fresh fruit choices, heavily used salad bars and freshly made entrees such as chicken tikka masala with rice, lime-cilantro slaw and cucumber and tomato salsa.

But Villarreal and others working to improve school food say progress remains halting and erratic. And the factors that hindered it in the past are still in play: cost, governmental regulation and the heavy involvement of the food industry.

Villarreal has been addressing the challenge of providing healthy meals to students in California since he arrived in Novato in 2002 and discovered that the district, though surrounded by more than 60 farms, was serving the same processed, heat-and-eat food that kids got at his previous district in Texas.

In collaboration with local growers, parents and administrators, Villarreal crafted a new approach, incorporating more whole grains, eliminating processed sugar and saturated fats, using fresh ingredients and even offering cooking classes.

It worked, Villarreal said, but it took time, determination and cooperation.

“It isn’t enough to talk about healthy food,” Villarreal said. “The food has to be healthy and affordable.”

To make their finances work, many districts rely on the National School Lunch Program, which is funded by the USDA. That gives the agency considerable sway over the food those districts offer.

In L.A., where about 80% of students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch, “we get asked about having organic foods,” Singh said. “Well, the USDA doesn’t reimburse us for that. When that policy changes, we will be happy to go to organic foods.”

Districts have to balance the books, so offering foods that cost less to buy and have higher profit margins — say, Pop-Tarts or quickly reheated chicken nuggets — will always be tempting.

These highly processed, low-nutrition items, Villarreal said, are often produced by food industry giants that can leverage their tremendous market clout and government subsidies to lower costs.

So how do schools effect real change in menus on a no-frills budget?

The answers, somewhat surprisingly, may lie close to home.

In cash-strapped Oakland, administrators formed a farm-to-school cooperative, bringing in fresh produce from local growers. It was part of a complete overhaul intended to put more plant-based items on their lunchroom menus.

They cut back on mass meat purchases, instead buying smaller quantities of higher-quality meat and pairing it with more legumes. They installed a central kitchen in the district to expedite cooking from scratch, enabling them to deliver freshly prepared entrees to their campuses.

Friends of the Earth, a Berkeley-based environmental advocacy group, analyzed the Oakland district’s procurement over a two-year period and found that the district saved nearly $42,000, or about 1% of its annual food budget, according to Kari Hamerschlag, the group’s deputy director for food and agriculture.

And student satisfaction with the menu grew.

Such efforts could get a boost from state lawmakers in Sacramento: The Assembly this year passed a bill to help pay for more plant-based meals and types of milk in schools. It now requires action in the Senate.

But taste still rules. In Singh’s Los Angeles district, all prospective dishes must run a three-step qualifying gantlet, which ends with a taste test by students. Anything lower than 80% approval means the dish is scrapped.

“That’s a B average,” Singh said. “Why would we serve anything below that?”

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