Greasy chicken nuggets and salty hot dogs are a thing of the past at five San Ramon Valley elementary schools, as students forgo fried foods in favor of fresh fruits and veggies.
"Food changes going on district-wide have to do with more from-scratch cooking as opposed to the traditional cafeteria fast food items," said Walt Disney Elementary Principal Curtis Haar. Walt Disney will host a health awareness day on Thursday, Jan. 26 to demonstrate the new, healthy choices available to students.
Spearheaded by Child Nutrition Director Dominic Machi, and with the help of five $5,000 grants from Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the scratch cooking push has also been implemented at Tassajara Hills, Live Oak and Vista Grande elementary schools. Students at those schools now have access to a fresh salad bar with 12 fruits and vegetables, cups for water and home made healthy dishes such as chicken teriyaki over brown rice and a crispy chicken sandwich with pasta salad.
"I think it's important in general for not just students at Walt Disney, but students all across the county, that there are options for them to make healthy food choices," Haar said.
Although SRVUSD does not track obesity rates among its 30,000 students, data from the state physical fitness report shows that in 2011, 74.4 percent of fifth grade students in the district are in the "healthy fitness zone" for body composition, compared with a 52.1 percent state average. In 2010, 88.4 percent of students were in the healthy zone.
Nationwide, about 25 million kids and teens are overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.
The district already takes part in the state standardized SHAPE meal program -- which requires schools to serve lunches with 30 percent less fat, 10 percent less saturated fat and less than 1,100 milligrams of sodium averaged throughout the week -- and First Lady Michelle Obama recently announced new nutritious meal guidelines for schools. Still, Machi said parents have desired healthier options for some time.
"The model that we're trying to put together is a change and a shift for the school district itself in a very big way," Machi said, adding that he has helped revitalize school kitchens in two other districts. "I believe in from-scratch cooking, making as many home cooked meals as possible…it's part of our drive to reduce the amount of possessed foods that we purchase by 50 to 60 percent."
For Walt Disney's health awareness day, that means cooking turkey chili, marinara bakes, homemade pasta sauces and salad dressings that have less fat and sodium than store-bought goods. The cafeteria will still sell hot dogs, but only those of the all-beef, low sodium variety.
"Kids and staff have taken a liking to having fresh fruit or veggies at lunch. I wasn't so surprised about the students, but I was surprised how much the staff has gotten involved with purchasing the salads from the salad bar," Haar noted.
Some Walt Disney students are enjoying the new lunch choices so much that they'll often opt to sit outside in the sun and finish their meals instead of going to play, said school Wellness Coordinator Gayla Moghannam.
"You would be shocked to see how well healthy sells at our school," she said. "They're piling their plates high with these beautiful veggies and they're gobbling it up."
Despite the added time needed to make food from scratch, Machi said there is no cost difference to the school or students (who, in grades K-5, pay $3.50 for lunch). Money from Alliance's Share Our Strength grant is put toward additional wellness education for faculty and staff -- an important component that is sometimes missing from the nutrition conversation, Machi said.
"Basically it's a lifestyle and wellness change in your school and district. Students who are fitter perform better," he continued. "The impact to us is it's a lot more work, but it's better for our students in the long run."
Thursday's health awareness day spotlight at Walt Disney Elementary will include a cow milking display "Food Network"-style demonstrations and broccoli toss game, as well as science and fitness courses. Although the event is not open to the public, those in attendance will get a preview of what menus across the district will eventually look like.