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Pescadero students will receive a healthy lunch, because the farm near the school the use of fresh ingredients

21 September 2009 1,075 views No Comment

PESCADERO — Veggie stir-fry, Caesar salad, and homemade tuna casserole sound more like restaurant fare than the daily lunch selection for students at one of the most under-resourced school districts in San Mateo County.

Getting homemade fresh, organic, locally sourced food onto the plates of students in the La Honda-Pescadero Unified School District despite budget constraints — and getting kids to like it — was the challenge faced by nutrition expert Kathy Webster, who has revamped the entire lunch menu in two years at no cost to the school district. The new menu took effect in August 2008.

Gone are the days of corn dogs, chicken nuggets and frozen pizza. Preheated, fried fare has been replaced with homemade macaroni and cheese, chicken enchiladas, spaghetti and turkey wraps — all made from scratch.

“It’s scary to look at kids today — the obesity rate keeps going up. When I watch kids eat healthy food and like it, it just thrills me,” said Webster, who is paid by Pescadero’s TomKat Ranch to work at the school district three days a week and took on the job because of her background in nutrition studies.

TomKat Ranch owner Kat Taylor sent Webster, one of her employees, to the school district two years ago after the district adopted a new wellness policy with the goal of making students healthier. When she arrived, Webster was given what sounded like an impossible mission: find a way to serve fresh,

healthy foods without raiding the general fund, which the financially troubled district has already cut by more than $500,000 this year.

It was an especially tall order at a school district where 55 percent of students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches through a federal program. The food service budget is $168,000 — more than half of which is for personnel, not ingredients.

Webster made it work by reaching out to several local organic farms for produce like strawberries, lettuce, onions and broccoli at a substantial discount. She also scoured the list of federally reimbursed food ingredients included in the free lunch program, picking out items like whole wheat pasta and brown rice.

It turns out that, contrary to stereotypes, cooking fresh and local food often costs less than prepared items like chicken nuggets. And then there are the long-term benefits of avoiding junk food.

“Heat-and-serve food is very expensive. You’re paying for food that’s already ready to go. It costs a lot less to make food from scratch,” Webster said. “In the long run, processed food costs people more. It has more fats and more sodium, and it can lead to higher health care costs if people continue to eat more (later in life).”

At first, students were displeased about the new food regime, said Amy Wooliever, principal of Pescadero High School.

“There was a lot of rumbling about salads and milk. We would put out 20 servings of milk and two were taken. “… It took about a month, but students started to realize that the food tasted good and the servings were much larger.”

The school district’s lunch program is modeled after the menu revolution “lunch lady” Ann Cooper brought to the Berkeley Unified School District with the support of the Chez Panisse Foundation, according to Webster. Like Cooper, Webster hopes to eventually leave the program on solid enough footing that it can run itself.

Although she has no evidence to back it up, Wooliever is convinced the new lunch regime has already had a positive impact on students’ academic lives.

“Anecdotally, I can tell you that teachers report that students are more focused in the afternoon, and there’s a change over the previous year,” she said. “I think, in general, if you look at our student population, they appear more fit than they did five years ago.”

By Julia Scott
San Mateo County Times

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