A group of San Ramon Valley residents lambasted the school district's lunch program last week, telling the school board the meals are unhealthy and unacceptable -- and swift changes are needed.
The seven speakers, talking during public comment on non-agendized items Tuesday, criticized the district-provided lunches for being too high in fat, sodium, sugar and calories. They urged the board to seek bids from companies to supply healthier meals and asked that the lunch debate be placed on an upcoming board agenda for public discussion.
"The food that we are serving our students might fulfill the USDA nutrition guidelines, but for the most part, it's not real food. The majority of the menu items are heavily processed, food-like products. They're made by machines and shipped from all over the country," parent Cheryl Iacone told the board in Danville.
"Our children love and respect our schools and implicitly trust that what comes from the school is both safe and healthy," she added. "What are we teaching our children about healthy nutrition when we feed them these fake foods at schools?"
School board president Denise Jennison told the speakers that board members could not respond to the lunch commentary during the meeting because the issue was not listed on the board's posted agenda.
"We are a public board, so if we were to engage in conversation with you about items that were not on the agenda, it would deny the general public the right to know that those things were being discussed," she said before taking citizen input on non-agenda items.
In a follow-up interview the day after the meeting, Jennison said she and district officials take the residents' comments "very seriously."
"The concerns shared by the public (Tuesday) night are valid and merit serious consideration on the part of the district," she said in an email. "We are continually looking at how we can do a better job in offering meals that are both nutritious and appealing for all of our students."
Jennison also noted that Bruce Hall, the district's child nutrition director, was in the audience and heard the residents' feedback.
All food and beverages served by the district meet all state and federal requirements based on the "USDA Dietary Guidelines," according to the district's child nutrition webpage.
"We aim to do the best we can to offer affordable yet tasty meals that provide our students with the nutrients they need to be healthy individuals," the webpage states.
But the speakers Tuesday argued the district isn't doing nearly enough, and they laid into the district about the quality of the lunch meals, as well as the variety.
"Right now, I can't have hot school lunches at school," said Nellie Bates, a Vista Grande Elementary third-grader who cannot eat gluten because of Celiac disease. "I'd really like the chance to eat a nutritious and delicious school lunch that's safe for me along with my friends. Right now, I can't."
Bates added, "I know how hard it is to make food that is safe for me and for other children with serious allergies, but I also know that there are companies who are able to do so."
The lunch critics urged the district to issue a request for proposals (RFP) for vendor companies to supply healthier school lunches.
They've also organized an online petition, through change.org, in support of the same request to the board. The petition had 507 signatures as of early Monday afternoon.
Among the citizen speakers was Danville resident and parent Keith Cosbey, an executive with Choicelunch. The Danville-based company focuses on providing healthy food and drink options to students and currently serves approximately 25,000 students in other school communities, including Menlo Park, Mill Valley and Lafayette, Cosbey said.
"We are thrilled to provide for these students throughout the state of California, and if the district were to submit an RFP for a vended meal program, I'm sure that Choicelunch and other similar companies would be happy to submit a proposal," he added.
Amy Dennis, a mother of two Greenbrook Elementary students, said her oldest son used to eat and enjoy school lunches, but "in the last couple of years, he's said it's so gross and so disgusting he refuses to eat it."
"I believe that our children deserve better food in their lunches," she added. "We're one of the top districts in California ... we should pride ourselves on what we provide for our children to eat at lunch the same way we take pride in the test scores."
In other business during Tuesday's meeting
* Judy Gestring, also speaking during comment on non-agenda items, urged the district to enhance its earthquake preparedness.
"The last two weeks have shaken this community towards understanding the need for thorough school emergency preparation. It's not a matter of if the big quake will hit us, but of when it will occur," she said.
"Having worked in other school districts that held comprehensive earthquake drills, I find it disturbing that San Ramon's version of being prepared is merely to practice duck-and-cover and evacuation," Gestring added. "This is our children's safety and lives, so a minimalist approach is not acceptable."
* Julie Holcomb, a teacher at Alamo's Rancho Romero Elementary, spoke in support of the Barton Reading & Spelling System reading intervention program and its effectiveness with dyslexic students.
"Not only do these children learn to read, but their whole educational experience is transformed when they gain access to the entire curriculum," she said during comment on non-agenda items. She also acknowledged this month is National Dyslexia Awareness Month.
* Sarah Cranford, principal of California High School, led a 20-minute presentation and discussion about recent programs and activities at the San Ramon campus.
* The board adopted a resolution designating November as Native American Heritage Month in the district.