A Look at the School District’s Nutrition Program

By Hannah Heineman

School nutrition programs not only provide nutrition for school children but can influence children’s eating habits for the rest of their lives.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District’s nutrition program provides a variety of options for students, including breakfast and lunch programs, salad bars and, with ingredients from Santa Monica’s Farmers’ Market, lunch options from outside vendors, snacks, vending machines, and the opportunity for students to grow fruits and vegetables in school gardens.

The District’s Director of Food and Nutrition Services, Orlando Griego, told the Dispatch his department’s self-sustaining budget for the 2010-2011 school year was $3 million. His department employs about 72 people, including office staff and drivers. The majority of his employees work three hours a day.

The cost for a student to purchase breakfast and/or lunch from the District’s program varies, depending upon the student’s family’s finances. For example, a full priced lunch at the elementary school level is $3.00 while a reduced price lunch is 40 cents or free. A lunch from the program at the middle or high school level is $3.50 with the reduced lunch also at 40 cents or free. At the end of each month the District applies for a reimbursement from the state for its reduced and free meals. Last year the District received $1.67 for each reduced lunch elementary lunch they served and for each free lunch they received $1.97. At the secondary level they received $2.53 for each reduced lunch and $2.93 for each free lunch.

About 3,200 – 4,000 District students eat breakfast and/or lunches provided by the district. Other students purchase a la cart items.

Students also have the choice at the middle and high schools to purchase lunch from outside vendors. Griego emphasized, “Everything offered for sale must meet the state nutrition requirements.” The district’s nutrition specialist is responsible for checking foods for nutritional content. His department also tries to choose local outside vendors such as Gourmet Ameci Pizza.

Students are also provided choices for snacks for their morning nutrition break at the district’s elementary and middle schools. At Will Rogers and Edison Elementary Schools, a grant provides the funding for every student to have either a fresh fruit or vegetable four days a week as a snack. At Lincoln Middle School, children can purchase a churro or a cinnamon roll.

The Food and Nutrition Services department also manages the contract for all the vending machines at the various school sites. These machines contain a variety of drinks but no longer includes sodas because they were banned from being sold in campus vending machines by the state legislature as of July, 2009. Chips, cookies and pop tarts are also offered in the vending machines.

The District also offers various opportunities for students to grow fruits and vegetables as part of their gardening program. Lettuce from the elementary school gardening program is used in their lunch salad bars. Lettuce from Santa Monica High School’s garden is used for lunch salads sold at the school’s Vikes Inn.

An independent nutritionist, Debby Pool, from Nutrition Concepts, Inc. reviewed the district’s breakfast and lunch menus for this story. She concluded “In general, these menus are far better than many that I review so I applaud the Food Services staff for the efforts they’re making to provide healthier choices to the students. The concern I have is that along with the healthier selections that are offered, (like the salad bar, whole grain breads, fresh fruit, etc.) that are available, there are many less healthy options and children, when given the choice, will usually gravitate towards those options because they’re used to (and like) the taste of salt, fat and/or sweet. If we’re really serious about making children’s health a priority, we have to first educate so they know the how and why of making good choices and then we have to create an environment that helps them choose foods that are healthier for them. Taking away (or reducing) temptations like cheese pizza (which I see a lot of on the menus) will make it easier for students to make healthier choices.”

The Dispatch also spoke with some parents and a student. Amy Bishop Dunbar, a parent of 8th and 12th graders packs a lunch for her children because there is a long wait in line for school lunches and the cost is too high. Her 8th grader, Katie Dunbar mentioned that the choices offered at Lincoln Middle School for morning snack aren’t healthy “because the salad bar is only open at lunch.” She also explained that most kids bring lunch from home and may buy something to add to it.

McKinley Elementary School and Santa Monica High School parent Tenisha Collins stated, “The McKinley lunch is awesome because of the salad bar.” She suggested that the school “should allow uneaten lunch to be brought home so much food isn’t wasted.”

Another McKinley parent who just wants to be called Stephanie packs lunches for her children “partially for nutritional reasons, but mostly for reasons of time. If my children had to stand in line to get their food, they would have approximately 5 minutes to eat. As it is, they only have 15 minutes to eat, if they are lucky.”

The District School Board recently decided to have District staff conduct a comprehensive study of all food and beverages available in the district to identify items of minimal nutritional value after deciding to continue to offer flavored milk as an beverage option with district meals.

Contact: Hannah Heineman

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