Clamor builds for healthy school lunches

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Elementary students in the Ventura (Calif.) Unified School District eat a lot of the same junk food lunches students in Oak Park eat: chicken nuggets, pizza and corn dogs.
But a Ventura initiative, the Healthy Schools Project, has brought healthy alternativesâ€"fresh juices, fruits and a semiweekly salad barâ€"into schools. Perhaps more importantly, though, the arrival of the healthy food came after a nutrition education campaign.

Ventura paired lunch with learning, and empowered its students to make healthy choices.

That's just what some local parents want to see in Oak Park schools.

"I think it's hypocritical of schools to preach health...and then you go down to the cafeteria and it's like McDonald's," said Ellen Pimentel, a parent at Beye School, 230 N. Cuyler Ave.

Pimentel has gathered an estimated 600 signatures from parents hoping for healthier school lunches. She plans to submit the petitions to the District 97 Board of Education to urge them to include "healthy options in a realistic way" at schools.

Most of the fruit served at Oak Park schools is whole fruit. But for kids, who pass various stages of toothlessness while in school, biting an apple or peeling an orange isn't exactly practical in the short time a student takes to eat before escaping to the playground for recess, Pimentel said.

It's not just Pimentel and her signers. Last week, about a dozen parents gathered at Hatch School, 1000 N. Ridgeland Ave., for a presentation on Farm-to-School programs, which the Oak Park-based nonprofit Seven Generations Ahead plans to begin at three District 97 schools this year.

Federal legislation in 2002 allowed for foods from local farms and school gardens to be used for school lunches. Farm-to-School programs cuddle local farmers with students, with hopes of making school food healthier, small family-owned farms more viable, and educating kids about food, where it comes from, and how it gets to the table.

A passel of speakers repeated suggestions of a disturbing trend: that more kids are becoming obese, which has led to increased diagnoses of Type II, or "adult onset," diabetes in children, as well as other diseases previously thought of as adult-only diseases.

The number of overweight adults increased by 46 percent, and obese adults by 14 percent between 1976 and 1980. However, those increases were 65 percent and 31 percent respectively in just the one year between 1999 to 2000, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control.

Meanwhile, the number of overweight adolescents has more than tripled since 1980, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. And there's a higher prevalence in the African-American and Latino communities.

"The schools didn't create the obesity and diabetes epidemics," said Gary Cuneen, executive director of Seven Generations Ahead. "But they're in a unique position to be part of the solution."

Better nutrition helps kids perform better in school, advocates say. Sandy Noel, Hatch physical education teacher and nutrition guru, has made nutritious breakfasts for fifth graders the past three years, and monitored behavioral and emotional responses those days. Students can concentrate better and create fewer behavioral disturbances when they've eaten healthy, balanced breakfasts, than when they eat no breakfast or a sugary one, she said.

Seven Generations Ahead, funded by a USDA grant, will begin to work on the "peripherals" needed to launch a Farm-to-School program at three schools each in Chicago and Oak Park, and has a volunteer training session scheduled for Nov. 15 for parents at Hatch, Longfellow (715 S. Highland) and Irving (1125 S. Cuyler), although parents at other schools could also participate. Parents will help give healthy food tastings at schools, and begin working on the education component of getting kids interested in nutrition.

District 97's contract with its foodservice provider expires at the end of the school year. Seven Generations hopes the district will add nutritional, fresh foods and locally grown components to the district's Request of Proposals when it seeks bids for a new contract.

Money, advocates say, shouldn't be keeping healthy foods out of cafeterias.

"This is happening all over the place and in areas that don't have any more money than we do," Pimentel said.
Gary Lonquist, assistant superintendent for finance and operations for Dist. 97, said many factors affect changing school lunches. Federal guidelines, for example, have caloric requirements, not just nutritional ones.

There's the "consumer" side of things, tooâ€"making food that will appeal to as many students in the district as possible.

"We can't be all things to all people," Lonquist said.
But he recognizes that parents are looking for changes in school food, and is preparing a report on options to present to the Board of Education at one of its December meetings.

"I listen to the parents, I listen to the principals," Lonquist said. "The issue's out there, and I think we are obligated to look at it."


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