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It's healthy, but will they eat it?

Novato tries to bring organic lunches to Twinkie-loving kids

Eat up: Brianna Hatfield, 10, serves fruit as lunch is dished up at Hamilton Elementary School in Novato. (IJ photo/Frankie Frost)


Rob Rogers
Marin Independent Journa
l   9-5-06


He'd only been a student at Hamilton Elementary School for four days. But Ryan Molnar, who moved to Novato from Michigan earlier this year, was already seeing the difference where it mattered most: in the cafeteria.


"The food is great," the second-grader said, pausing between bites of a crisp chicken patty on a soft white bun. "It tastes better. Fresher."


That's music to the ears of Miguel Villarreal, director of food and nutritional services for the Novato and San Rafael school districts.


His kitchen at Novato's Lynwood Elementary School also provides daily meals for students in the Dixie, Lagunitas and Reed school districts, as well as the Marin School of Arts and Technology, Marin Christian Academy and the Good Shepherd Lutheran School - all of which he oversees with the attention to detail of a restaurateur.


"The differences between myself and a restaurateur are first, that most of my customers are pint-sized," Villarreal said. "Second, with 3,500 meals a day, I oversee the production of more merchandise than any restaurant."


Villarreal has won praise from parents and district officials for replacing the canned cling peaches and Sloppy Joes normally found in school cafeterias with locally grown organic produce.


"Miguel met with teachers, parents and community groups to talk about how he could provide healthy, high-quality food products," said county Assistant Superintendent of Schools Mary Buttler, who welcomed Villarreal to Lagunitas while serving as interim superintendent of the district. "He's always willing to take extra time to do whatever he can on our behalf."

But as Villarreal - and second-grader Ryan Molnar - would point out, providing students with healthy, hearty meals is only half the battle. Getting students to eat them is the other.


That's a lesson other districts have learned the hard way. The Berkeley Unified School District drew nationwide attention when it teamed with famed Chez Panisse restaurateur Alice Waters to bring local organic food to the students at Berkeley High.


Yet the district abandoned the project in 2002, after only about 200 to 300 of the school's 3,000 students chose the school's gourmet offerings over the area's fast food on a regular basis.


"Kids are consumers," Villarreal said. "They see our facility and compare it with what they see in a food court, and there's no comparison, even if the food might be the same."


Last year, Villarreal catered an outdoor event at Novato's San Marin High School. During the event, he and other food service workers gave away hundreds of wraps, an item he'd been providing as a lunch option throughout the past year.


"A number of kids came up to us and asked where we bought the wraps, and where they could get some more," he said. "We said we'd been serving them in the cafeteria all year long! It's all about perception."


A battle for health


Villarreal is on the front lines of an ongoing battle against childhood obesity. At least 34 percent of Marin children ages 2 to 17 are overweight, according to a county survey.


While that's hardly a startling statistic - 64.5 percent of adult Americans are overweight or obese, according to a report last week by the Washington D.C.-based Trust for America's health - it has alarmed local leaders concerned by the connection between obesity and disease.


Poor diet and physical inactivity are linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis and certain cancers, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Dietary Guidelines for Americans." The number of overweight adolescents has tripled in the past 20 years, according to the U.S. Surgeon General's office, and those adolescents have a 70 percent chance of becoming overweight or obese adults.


"The NUSD program bringing in more nutritious foods goes a long way toward helping to increase the health of the district, which enhances the ability of students to do well later in life," said Novato City Councilwoman Pat Eklund, head of the Cities, Counties and State Partnership Condition of Children Task Force.


In response to a perceived obesity epidemic, many of the county's school districts have passed "wellness policies" that limit the kinds of products students can purchase or receive on campus.


Under Novato's policy, passed this spring, the only foods that can be sold to elementary school students will be full meals and individually sold portions of nuts, nut butters, seeds, eggs, cheese, fruit, vegetables and legumes. Middle and high school students will receive entrees in which no item can exceed 400 calories, and beverages would be limited to fruit and vegetable juices, drinking water and milk.


While that policy won't go into effect until 2007, Villarreal is already doing his best to limit unhealthy snacks on campus.


"Last week, I went to Novato High School as they were loading the vending machines," Villarreal said. "I took out all the sodas and Pop-Tarts. The vendor said, 'You're killing me. These things are acceptable.'


"I told him, 'Not in this school,'" Villarreal said.


Making healthy choices


At Hamilton Elementary, healthy food is an easy sell.


"I like salads because they're good for you," said second-grader Kayllana Majoulet. "I like lots of vegetables, salads and fruit."


But older students are more likely to be tempted by sugary snacks and high-fat fast food, said cafeteria assistant Valerie Arrow.


"These students tend to make good choices," said Arrow, who has worked in the cafeterias of most of Novato's schools. "They love fruits, vegetables and salads. As they get older, they have more choices, and they don't always eat as well."


Jessica Simkins knows that only too well. As a nutrition student at San Francisco State University, she's been shadowing Villarreal and encouraging Marin students to eat balanced meals.


"The most popular snack at San Jose Middle School was baked Cheetos, dipped in cream cheese," Simkins said. "There are so many obstacles to kids eating healthy."


Villarreal believes students will make good food choices if they truly understand what their options are. He's pushed for nutrition education in the classroom, but understands that the subject might receive short shrift at a time when district budgets are growing tighter every year. So he's come to embrace the cafeteria as his classroom.


"When I was trying to set up breakfast in the classroom at Novato, a big concern for some people was that it would take away from education time," Villarreal said. "I don't look at it that way. To me, it's an opportunity to provide nutrition education. If students get that 10 minutes every morning for 180 days, they'll have more nutrition education in a year than I had in 12 years of school."


To that end, Villarreal has recruited a group of parent volunteers - the "lunch buddies" - to visit cafeterias and help students understand what they're eating. One girl, he noted, had never seen a tomato. After being introduced to one by a cafeteria worker, she couldn't get enough, he said.


"Students may be hesitant to try something until they see their classmates taste it," said "lunch buddy" Veronica Valero, a member of the Novato Live Well organization and parent of a first-grade student.


Valero joined with Villarreal, other parents, teachers and cafeteria workers on a field trip sponsored by the University of California Cooperative Extension's "farm-to-school" program two weeks ago.


The group toured many of Marin's organic farms, helping parents and teachers understand where their food comes from in hopes they'll pass that information along to students.


"We took them to a kale field, and some of them had no idea what it looked like," said Ellie Rilla, director of the extension program.


Providing alternatives


Building connections between schools and farmers is part of Villarreal's mission. For the last year and a half, he's worked closely with Helge Hellberg, executive director for Marin Organic, a collaborative of county organic farmers.


About 20 percent of Marin Organic's harvest had been going to waste, Hellberg said, for aesthetic reasons: zucchini too long or too knobby to be sold, tubs of yogurt packaged with the wrong label. Hellberg and Villarreal worked out a deal to provide Marin Organic's imperfect food - 40,000 pounds, so far - to schools without charge.


"Schools are on a tight budget, and could not afford to buy this quality of local, organic food," Hellberg said. "Now, half of the food they get from us is 'gleaned,' and half they pay for."


That savings is important to Villarreal, who brought Novato's food services department into the black five years ago by consolidating its preparation and distribution of food with four other districts.


And in reducing costs for the districts he represents, Villarreal is always looking for ways to keep prices low for his customers - the county's students.


In San Rafael, for example, Villarreal wanted to eliminate one of the district's most popular snacks - ramen noodles, available in vending machines.


"It's high in sodium and has low, if any, nutritional value," Villarreal said. "But it's an inexpensive item that kids have enjoyed for years."


Villarreal didn't want to simply take the ramen away without providing students with an alternative snack. So he contacted Hellberg, who told him that the Straus Family Creamery had accidentally packaged a large amount of yogurt with the wrong labels. Soon, Villarreal was able to provide yogurt parfaits to San Rafael students at $1 each.


"There are always sandwiches, always salads," Villarreal said. "But there's so much choice at the high school level that we have to keep providing new alternatives, healthy alternatives."


In that case, Hamilton Elementary student Ryan Molnar has a suggestion.

"Watermelon," Molnar said. "That would be great."



- Guide your family's choices rather than dictate foods.

- Eat meals together as a family as often as possible.

- Don't place your child on a restrictive diet.

- Carefully cut down on the amount of fat and calories in your family's diet.

- Don't overly restrict sweets or treats.

- Children should be encouraged to drink water and to limit intake of beverages with added sugars, such as soft drinks, fruit juice drinks and sports drinks.

- Plan for healthy snacks.

- Aim to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.


- Source: Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity

Contact Rob Rogers via e-mail at rrogers@marinij.com