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San Francisco Bay Area community news

District trying new tricks to get students to eat healthier

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by Beth Winegarner
Staff Writer
November 17, 2008

You can lead a student to the salad bar, but you can’t make him eat.

As San Francisco’s public schools have transformed their cafeteria menu options — kicking out the junk food and adding fresh fruit, salads and healthier meals — leaders have struggled to make those options enticing to kids.

This year, leaders have added two more ideas to the menu: more food options at the beaneries, and a district-wide point-of-sale payment system so kids don’t have to divulge whether they’re paying full price or getting a government reimbursement.

Almost 55 percent of SFUSD students qualify for federal free and reduced-cost food, earning the district a reimbursement on every meal those students eat, according to Ed Wilkins, head of district nutrition services.

That means the meals they get in school may be their healthiest meals of the day, according to Woldow. However, many of those students avoid the lunch lines so their peers can’t tell they’re not paying.

Over the next 18 months, the district will bring swipe-cards and networked payment systems to every school — at a cost of $1 million to $1.5 million – so students’ lunch status stays under wraps, according to Wilkins.

At the same time, the district is working to make cafeteria and beanery options more enticing, offering two or three menu options per day, according to parent Dana Woldow, the district’s school-nutrition guru.

“You can get sandwiches and wraps, chicken or vegetarian chow mein, hot soup, fresh fruits and vegetables,” Woldow said. Another bonus: larger-size entrees at the high schools, where growing teens complain they don’t get enough to eat.

The district has come a long way in six years, since the Board of Education passed a resolution ordering sales of junk food — candy, sodas and chips – out of the schools. Although it wasn’t scheduled to take effect until September of 2003, Balboa High School Principal Patricia Gray didn’t wait — and she saw immediate results.

“We saw a 50 percent drop in behavioral problems, like referrals and fights, or kids going to sleep in class from the sugar crash,” Gray said. Since then, healthier food – along with focused effort among teachers — has helped students boost Balboa’s state test scores more than 10 percent, according to Gray.

The district has also rolled out healthier grains, from brown rice to whole-wheat pizza crust, as well as hot breakfast at every school.

“Sure, it’s more expensive, but you can’t wait for participation to go up — you have to start by making the food better,” and then watch as kids catch on, Woldow said.

Kids opt for off-campus, less-healthy food

Chicken teriyaki over brown rice or a healthy sandwich wrap for $3 probably sounds like an ideal lunch to many San Franciscans, but plenty of high-schoolers still prefer going off campus for a taco, burger or slice of full-fat pizza.

The San Francisco Unified School District has worked to make its lunch options tastier and more enticing. But nutrition guidelines – which say school food can’t get more than 30 percent of its calories from fat, or more than 35 percent of its weight from sugar – often get in the way of flavor, officials say.

“If these kids want a real slice of pizza, they have to go up the hill,” said SFUSD nutrition director Ed Wilkins. “My pizza is never going to cut it.”

Six high schools have open campuses, and students take advantage of the opportunity to leave at lunchtime – whether their school offers top-notch cafeteria choices and salad bars or not.

“The cafeteria food is very unappetizing,” said Mary Hodge, a sophomore at School of the Arts, which doesn’t offer a salad bar. Hodge was returning from a lunch-hour trip to buy a bottle of Odwalla juice instead, while her friends picked up pizza at Round Table.

That makes drawing students’ interest in the campus lunch line an uphill battle.

At Lowell High School, students are working on a project where they compare the calorie and nutrition content of off-campus food to the on-campus counterparts, according to Dana Woldow, co-chair of the district’s nutrition committee.

Many students said nearby restaurants offer more choices – albeit at higher prices – while others said they simply enjoy the freedom.

“Even though the cafeteria food is OK, it’s nice to take advantage of the privilege of going off campus,” said SOTA sophomore Jan Lopez.

This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.

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Written by Beth Winegarner

November 17, 2008 at 5:20 PM

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