Written by Maria Gaura
SANTA CRUZ (February 2010) - Jamie Smith is a friendly guy - he’s just impatient, and very direct. The new food service director for Santa Cruz City Schools is on a mission to evict junk food from district cafeterias, and replace it with fresh, healthy, scratch-cooked meals.
That may explain why, when Smith strides into the kitchen at Gault Elementary School or Harbor High, some staffers greet him with a smile and a handshake, and others get that unmistakable “oh, no!” look in their eyes.
It’s not clear that Smith notices the occasional look of dismay. He’s stalking the premises, often with a cell phone mashed to his ear, peering into steam trays and coolers, and rummaging through paperwork. But he doesn’t appear to miss much.
On a recent visit to a district elementary, Smith was chatting up a few employees when a deliveryman slapped a receipt on the counter and said “here’s the bill for the ice cream”. Smith gazed at the deliveryman’s retreating back and said mildly, “Ice cream on campus? Oh, my.”
And there it was, on a couple of faces, the “oh, no” look. The ice cream was for a regular fundraiser organized by a teacher, to be sold on Wednesday, the school’s half-day, as the children departed around noon. After inspecting the stash of popsicles and fudgesicles, Smith delivered the bad news. It’s junk food, and it’s history.
“It doesn’t have to end today,” Smith said later, “but there’s way too much sugar in those things. There’s no way they could ever meet the district’s wellness standards.”
Smith promised to look into healthier food that might be sold instead of the ice cream bars – perhaps an all-fruit popsicle, or fresh-made popcorn, which has the nutritional benefit of being a whole grain.
“I understand why they hate this,” Smith said, of cracking down on the soda, cookie and ice cream sales that have long provided money for cash-strapped schools. “People in schools work so hard, and I see the look in their eyes that says “Oh god, they’re taking our funding away again.” Change isn’t easy, but we can’t just keep hitting the‘easy’ button and feeding our kids crap.”
Since Smith began working for Santa Cruz City Schools in September, many nutritionally questionable items have vanished from cafeteria shelves. Meals in district schools are now cooked from scratch in district kitchens, instead of being purchased frozen and pre-packaged from a school-lunch vendor.
EVICTING THE CORN DOG
“I got rid of the corn dogs and chicken nuggets, and pre-packaged individually-wrapped burgers and pizza,” Smith said. “And no more chocolate milk – I decided to do that on my first day.
“I’ve got a seven-year-old and I know how it works,” Smith said. “They drink the chocolate milk first, and then they’re too full, and the healthy food ends up in the trash.”
Sugary sodas were already banned from campus when Smith arrived, but the drinks menu inside high school cafeterias now includes only fruit-juice sweetened soda, apple, orange and vegetable juice and certain types of energy drinks. Tortillas and baked goods are whole-grain, and fresh fruits and vegetables are included in practically every dish.
Entrees include stir-fried vegetables and Kung Pao chicken, low-fat pizza with whole wheat crust, pasta Bolognese with fresh vegetables and burritos with house-made, fat-free beans.
Some kids balk at the “healthy” soda and “brown” tortillas, but campus food sales are up this year, Smith said, reversing a steady five-year decline.
INTRODUCING THE SALAD BAR
The home-cooked meals were served first at middle- and high-school campuses, and were introduced to elementary campuses, along with salad bars, when children returned from the President’s Day holiday this month.
But because the elementary school kitchens are outdated and have been stripped of equipment over the years, the food is cooked and individually packaged at Harbor High and trucked to the elementary sites.
The cafeteria kitchen at Gault Elementary is typical, Smith said. The space is dominated by two towering “Rethermalizer” ovens, used to warm racks of individually-wrapped meals, and two enormous milk coolers. The steam-table buffet that an earlier generation of lunch ladies dished hot meals from has been boarded over, and the stove is a battered four-burner home model.
Smith checks out the Rethermalizer oven at Gault Elementary School
THE FAST-FOOD MODEL
After warming and stocking the packaged food, Gault’s lone lunch lady, Carol Stanley, sits in front of a computer monitor and makes sure that each child enters his or her personal lunch code on a keypad, to ensure that the school is reimbursed. The experience is very similar to ordering at a fast-food restaurant, and nothing at all like eating at home.
“When I was in school, they used to make all the food right there, and the kids really liked it,” Stanley said. “I’d love to make our own food here, wouldn’t that be nice?”
Smith would love nothing more than serving hot, scratch-cooked meals from a buffet line, but the costs of remodeling the elementary-school kitchens have put that dream out of reach.
In addition, US Department of Agriculture regulations governing school lunches have been piling up for more than 60 years, and have historically been much influenced by agricultural lobbies, making cafeteria cooking an obstacle course of seemingly random rules.
TOFU DOESN'T COUNT
Pointing to an elementary-school lunch prepared by a vendor, Smith broke out some the "components" required by federal rules. “It’s got two components of grains, two veg or fruit, and two milk. Every meal is required to have meat, or a “meat substitute”,” though tofu doesn’t count, he said.
“You can use tofu, and it contains protein, but as far as the USDA is concerned it’s as if I put water in the recipe. So if I use tofu, I have to add another source of protein.
“The regulations we follow are called “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”,” Smith said. “So if you’re of Mexican or Chinese heritage, too bad! You’ve got to eat like an American now, and that means beef!”
AWASH IN MILK
Milk is also ubiquitous, and children are often required to take a carton whether they intend to drink it or not.
“They’re always shoving the milk on us,” sighed Gault Principal Molly Parks. “A lot ends up in the trash.”
“Well, we earn six cents every time a kid throws one of these away,” Smith said, with a resigned shrug. “We get reimbursed 25 cents, and it costs us 19.”
Improving cafeteria food may seem like an obvious and overdue project, considering that more than one in four Santa Cruz County kids between the ages of 5 and 19 years is overweight or obese. Nutritionists have known for years that fatty, salty processed foods are unhealthy, and teachers have known for even longer that hungry kids have a hard time focusing in class.
Pasta Bolognese rolls off the packaging machine at Harbor High.
But City Schools’ overhaul of school lunches has been controversial and time-consuming. The increased cost of healthier food was hard to support in a time of budget cutbacks, and some questioned the district’s Wellness Policy, which far exceeds USDA guidelines.
The district’s Wellness Goals include purchasing local, organic and sustainably grown foods when possible, and seeks to eliminate harmful food additives, irradiation, hydrogenated oils, high fructose corn syrup and genetically modified foods. The policy also calls for nutrition education and school gardens to be integrated into the curriculum.
The Wellness Policy was prodded along by a coalition of district parents, school board members, and the Santa Cruz Education Foundation, a non-profit group formed to raise money for city schools. Several years ago, the foundation identified health and wellness as a priority for their efforts.
“What drove us to seek change was the idea that there are hungry kids in our schools, and that that is unacceptable, and that unhealthy food was being served, and that needed to change,” said Bill Maxfield, foundation vice-president and parent of a district student.
The change taking place under Smith’s leadership “is revolutionary in the context of what has become of food and nutrition in our schools,” Maxfield said. “We’ve been systematically divesting in our kitchens and cafeterias for the past 20 years.
“It’s been hard, and complicated,” Maxfield said. “And we still have a ways to go. But from the parents’ perspective, we are very much headed in the right direction.”
Kids, of course, have their own ideas of what constitutes progress in food service. While Smith was working at an elementary school recently, a small boy spotted him and stopped in his tracks.
WHAT KIDS WANT
“Hey, are you the guy who buys the lunches?” he asked Smith.
“Hi there,” Smith said, recognizing the child. “You’re the one who wants sushi, right?” The boy responded with a big grin, and a thumbs-up.
“A sushi fan,” Smith smiled. “There’s one on every campus."
written by Margarita , April 14, 2011