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No more tater tots? California schools put healthier lunches to the test

Mark Kreidler, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

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.

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