Battling the bulge through school lunches

At Sinsheimer Elementary School in San Luis Obispo kids grab fruits and vegetables as they make their way through the lunch line.
At Sinsheimer Elementary School in San Luis Obispo kids grab fruits and vegetables as they make their way through the lunch line.

A typical lunch for 14-year-old Michael Lizarraga consists mostly of snack foods — such as Cup O’Noodles soup, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Curious George fruit snacks. He washes everything down with Nesquik flavored milk.

“I don’t really think I’m eating healthy,” acknowledged ed Michael, an eighth-grader at Flamson Middle School in Paso Robles. “At school, I eat just junk.”

That’s the challenge before Central Coast school districts.

Charged with curbing obesity and other childhood health issues, they’ve cut down dramatically on calories, eliminated fatty fried foods and sugary sodas and switched to low-fat dairy products and whole grain breads made from scratch. They’ve also placed a greater emphasis on fresh, locally farmed fruits and vegetables.

Yet, despite educators’ best efforts, many students seem reluctant to choose healthier options.

“Students’ favorite meals are always going to be pizza, burritos and chicken nuggets,” said Rod Blackner, food service director for the Paso Robles Unified School District. “They’re used to fast food, and that’s what they want.”

San Luis Obispo County schools served more than 2.3 million lunches and nearly 1.5 million breakfasts during the 2008-2009 school year, according to the California Department of Education.

Out of the 32,960 students who attended elementary, middle or high school on an average day, however, less than 40 percent ate school meals, the department reported.

“Being a food service director is really a very challenging job because (you) have to be a good dietician and nutritionist and, at the same time, a good salesman,” said county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker, explaining that district food budgets depend on selling meals.

“Their challenge is being able to offer appealing food or drinks, but within very tight guidelines,” he said.

Local school districts already follow strict state and federal nutrition guidelines governing fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. Food from outside suppliers is made to the same exacting standards.

Tastes are tested

Even so, educators are trying several tacks to take school nutritilevel -from introducing on to the next students to new nibbles to finding healthy alternatives to familiar foods.

Take one lunchtime mainstay — pizza with a side of ranch dressing.

At Paso Robles Joint Unified, chefs switched from whole-milk to part-skim mozzarella cheese. Then they went to work on the crust, adding high protein flour, garbanzo bean flour and chia seeds rich in Omega-3 fatty acids to create a sourdough-style dough.

The ever-popular ranch dressing also got an update, Blackner said. Cooks replaced three-quarters of the mayonnaise with plain yogurt, chia seed gel and Z Trim corn fiber.

So far, he said, students haven’t noticed the difference.

Baked potato wedges have replaced tater tots and french fries at the Lucia Mar Unified School District. And the San Luis Coastal Unified School District has made “more of a push for whole grains,” nutrition and food services director Sue Thorson said, offering cornbread, oatmeal bread and banana bread.

Local school districts have also redoubled efforts to expose students to fresh produce.

“A lot of families aren’t familiar with fresh food and don’t incorporate it in their diets,” said Judy Stephens, food services director at Lucia Mar. “It’s hard to get the kids that might not be familiar with certain foods to accept them.”

That’s where the Harvest of the Month program comes in.

Aimed at encouraging students to eat their fruits and veggies, the program highlights a different food each month with taste tests at four county schools. Popular items are then incorporated into salad bars.

At Oceano Elementary School, students have sampled avocados, snap peas and strawberries. A chili-lemon spice blend, sprinkled on everything from cucumbers to orange slices, has also proven popular.

“(Kids) really like the extra attention,” Stephens said. “When you give them something to taste it makes it more special.”

San Luis Coastal has found similar success with monthly visits from Cal Poly students associated with Science Through Translational Research in Diet and Exercise, or, STRIDE.

“They did kale smoothies, and the kids loved them,” Thorson said.

Paso Robles students, meanwhile, have tried broccoli, blood oranges and squash, all courtesy of Sandra Diamond, market manager for North County Farmers’ Markets.

When Diamond brought kumquats to a Paso Robles middle school, Blackner said, the small, oval citrus fruits provoked a predictable reaction.

“Some of them loved it. Some of them said ‘yuck.’ And some of them just proved how good (kumquats) are for hitting people,” he said with a chuckle.

‘Cauliflower is awesome’

Food fights aside, local educators said they’ve seen some success in encouraging healthy eating habits.

A recent visit to local lunchrooms revealed that students are starting to get the message.

At Oceano Elementary School, first and second graders loaded their plates with cheese-covered breadsticks, cucumbers and cantaloupe — both Harvest of the Month selections.

Students at Flamson Middle School chowed down on orange chicken and rice. Most stopped by the salad bar, if only for a scoop of sliced jalapenos or black olives.

A group of seventh-and eighth-grade girls said they place importance on eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Who doesn’t like salads? Salads are delicious,” said Jasmine Reid, 13.

Fellow veggie lover Milan Bass, 12, and her friends listed their favorite fixings: broccoli, green beans, carrots, fresh spinach and cherry tomatoes. “And cauliflower!” Jasmine piped up. “Cauliflower is awesome!”

Meanwhile, at Sinsheimer Elementary School in San Luis Obispo, second-grader Micah Sunata and third-grader Jordan Troy munched on Western-style spaghetti and strawberries.

Seven-year-old Micah had clearly been instructed on eating well.

“I think that everyone should eat really good, healthy food and grow big and strong,” she said.

Reporters Patrick Pemberton and Nicole Smith contributed to this story.