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Parents Push For Healthier Food
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Chef Ann Cooper, second from left, recommended that the Blaine County School District have a third party assess its school lunch program after crunching the numbers last fall.
   
Sunday, April 9, 2017
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

It’s a head scratcher. We live in a community that talks a lot about healthy eating using locally produced whole foods. But we don’t act on it.

At least, not when it comes to school lunches.

That’s the conundrum rattling around in some parents’ brains as they go before the Blaine County School Board this week in hopes of putting healthier options in front of school kids.

The group has spent the past week encouraging people to write or email school board members to encourage them to authorize an independent food assessment examining the nutrition, quality and cost efficiency of the district’s school lunches.

The school board is expected to address the request at its 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 11, meeting at the Community Campus in Hailey.

“An independent assessment could cost between $20,000 to $35,000, but it could save money in the long run,” said Stacy Whitman, a member of the Local Food Alliance.

The school district relied on taxpayers to subsidize its school lunch program provided by Chartwells Catering Services by nearly $246,000 during fiscal year 2015 and by $273,000 during fiscal year 2016, according to the Idaho State Department of Education’s statewide school food service financial report.  That’s up from $145,719 in fiscal year 2010.

Many of the other districts are breaking even, Whitman noted. According to the report, Lake Pend Oreille provided the second highest subsidy--$105,209 for fiscal year 2015.

“The district is spending a lot of money on its school food program, which consistently provides low-quality food and is very underutilized with only 40 percent of kids participating. A 2016 district wellness survey included many comments about the poor quality of the cafeteria food,” she added.

Those interested in changing the equation brought Chef Ann Cooper to Sun Valley in late October 2016 to learn how they might implement healthier food options in local schools. Chef Ann, as she’s best known, was a celebrity chef who opened white tablecloth high end restaurants in cities like London and Telluride before she opted to overhaul the school lunch program in Berkeley, Calif., and later Boulder, Colo., with organic regionally sourced foods.

“Why do I do it? Hungry children can’t learn. Malnourished kids can’t think,” she said. “If one kid can’t sit still in class because of all the junk food he’s eaten, it affects all the kids.”

Cooper held a coffee talk with 30 people interested in introducing more whole foods into local schools last fall. It included representatives from Community School, Pioneer Montessori, Sage School, Syringa Mountain School, The Hunger Coalition, Local Food Alliance and even schools in Salmon and Gooding.

Cooper met later with Blaine County School officials.

Skimping on food quality is not something to take lightly, Cooper said: “We’re looking at children who are going to die 20 percent earlier than they would have due to diet-related illness. The kids today will be the first generation to die at a younger age than their parents. ”

Diet-related illness is a $260 billion a year industry, with childhood obesity tripling in the past 25 years, she added. And, despite the United States’ affluence compared with the rest of the world, life expectancy in this country ranks 42nd of all countries in the world, right between Virgin Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Jason Fry, then-director at the YMCA, said the YMCA nationally realizes it’s important to have a more conscious approach to eating, in addition to exercise. That’s why the Wood River Y built the greenhouse last year.

Anji Branch, food service director for Gooding Schools, described how her school has local farmers  teach students about locally grown foods with fun activities during Healthy Harvest Week.

Candace Burns, who attended from Salmon where she is a member of that school district’s school garden project committee, said she became riled up when she noticed a label on the macaroni and cheese her school had been serving.

“It featured a list of ingredients three inches deep—none of them real food,” she said. “Nobody wants all these toxins.”

The No. 1 cost for school lunch programs is the payroll, usually taking between 50 percent and 60 percent of the budget, Chef Ann told the group. In contrast, payroll usually comprises between 20 percent and 25 percent of a restaurant’s cost.

Chef Ann’s Boulder Valley School District keeps payroll costs down by preparing meals at a central kitchen and delivering them to the schools the next day to be finished, heated and served. Meals, which cost $1.25 each, are prepared with 100 percent whole foods and include such dishes as Chicken Piccata and Pasta, Sweet Chili Tofu with Black Pearl Medley Rice, Black Bean & Veggie Empanada and Chicken and Spinach Quesadillas.

“This is a business and it should run as a business,” Chef Ann said.

Cooper described how she invites local farmers to submit a list of what they’re growing and she, in turn, gives them a list of what the school’s 31,000 students need.

She raises hundreds of thousands of dollars by selling a calendar of school menus for the year illustrated by kids and filled with business ads, tidbits about local farmers and short essays from children about their favorite foods.

A food truck branded with the same logos as the calendar caters at the high school and school events, with such items as grilled cheese chipotle sandwiches.

And Cooper organizes dozens of events to put nutrition in the spotlight. She also gives students trading cards featuring fruit and vegetable facts.

“Did you know the peach is a member of the rose family and is rich in potassium, fluoride and iron?” asks one. “There are over 700 varieties of peaches. Some are even flat like hockey pucks.”

“Did you know beets contain a significant amount of carbohydrates that provides your body with extra energy?” asks another. “The biggest beet in the world weighed over 156 pounds.”

“Some foundations give money to put salad bars in schools and to teach kids to eat produce,” Cooper  said. Sometimes parents give incentives—say, 25 cents—if a child eats his or her fruit or vegetables.

Even the timing of lunch matters. Children who follow up lunch with recess tend to eat one thing and a cookie and run to recess. Those who go to recess first, then follow it up with lunch before going back to class tend to eat everything on their plate.

“The Berkeley School District wanted nothing to do with school lunch reform until officials realized children thought food came from drive-ups,” Cooper said.

“There should be a garden in every single school in America so kids know food isn’t grown in grocery stores. As it is, one of every four meals is fast food. One in every four meals is eaten in a car,” she added.

Ali Long noted that Blaine County Schools charge $1.31 per lunch and provided very little fresh, mostly processed food, with nonorganic milk.

“To me it’s unconscionable that they’re not serving organic milk, given the pesticides and antibiotics in nonorganic milk that could be so harmful for growing children,” she said. “We have to offer kids milk but we don’t need to serve it. They put milk on every child’s plate and much of it goes into the garbage so it’s wasteful.”

“Without an assessment, change is unlike to happen anytime soon,” noted Lauren Golden, extension educator for the University of Idaho in Blaine County. The Blaine County School District spends far more per child than other districts, yet customer satisfaction and participation in the school lunch program remains low, she added.

“I would love to see changes to move the needle to healthier,” said Kaz Thea, who coordinates the Wood River Farmers’ Markets.

“The Obama Administration did more to promote healthy eating among school kids than any administration before,” Cooper noted.

“School food is really hard and reform is long and hard. And you can’t change a system that doesn’t want to change,” she said. “But if you can get people to understand healthy food is the way to better education and better physical and emotional health, that can make a difference.”

WHAT’S ON OTHER SCHOOLS’ PLATES?

Community School, which doesn’t have a cafeteria, began securing farm-to-school organic lunches twice weekly from Wood River Sustainability Center beginning in January 2017. Students bring their own lunch or order from Perry’s, Ketchum Burritos and other restaurants the other days.

About half of Syringa Mountain School students get mostly organic lunches featuring locally grown foods from the Sustainability Center five days a week. Some Sage School students piggyback on Syringa’s lunch of the day.

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