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Contra Costa Times
August 30, 2006
By Jolene Thym

Bay Area companies turn kids on to healthful lunches

Government surplus wannabe cheese melted on fiber-free pizza bread, topped with greasy, preservative-laden pepperoni, may be a child's idea of a great school lunch. But that lunch is at least partly to blame for a pretty scary statistic -- a record 28 percent of California children are obese. We have the second-fattest kids in the nation.

At the root of the problem, nutritionists say, is that children are oftentimes so unfamiliar with fresh foods that they fail even the simplest "name that veggie" quiz. On top of that, the majority of school lunches served this fall will continue to be made with low-cost, low-quality government commodities, mostly canned and frozen foods.

The good news is that school lunch is in for a massive makeover by next July, when new federal laws regarding school lunches take effect. The new laws limit the calorie count of a school lunch to 400, and the fat to no more than 4 grams per 100 calories. Even the protein and vitamin counts in those meals will be under scrutiny.

Vegetable takeover

Parents who don't want to wait a year to get better food in their children's mouths can check out a growing list of options from numerous Bay Area companies that are taking on the lunch bag challenge, offering an array of convenient, healthful, kid-friendly lunches.

Children's Choice in Danville is a company that was started three years ago specifically to improve the lunch programs in the Bay Area. Children's Choice serves lunch at about 30 schools in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, all of them private or charter schools that have opted out of a contract with the public school's nutrition services.

What makes Children's Choice exceptional -- and easy for schools to adopt -- is that all meals are made to order and paid for in advance. Parents order exactly what they want their children to eat via a Web site. All nutrition information for every meal is on the site.

"Our lunch program gives much more control to the parent over what their child eats," says Justin Gagnon, one of five co-owners. "We have 12 different hot lunch options every day, all of which meet the federal guidelines for nutrition that don't take effect until July."

The success of the program has much to do with the all-you-can-eat fruit and veggie bar, which is always stocked with fresh produce, no matter how expensive it happens to be at that time of year. "From the start," says owner Keith Cosbey, "our emphasis was on nutrition, and that has paid off." The salad bar has also been a big hit at Oakland's Chabot Elementary, where parents joined together to snag a grant from Albertson's supermarket chain and the California Dietetic Association to pay for a salad bar at their school.


Many of these new lunch companies require group efforts -- which is easiest to muster at private rather than public schools. But others are the result of grass-roots parent efforts to replace substandard food service programs with something much more nutritious and appealing to children.

Sharon Domanico of Hillsborough, for example, got involved in the Burlingame lunch program, called fudbag, primarily to make sure her four boys ate better. She now oversees preparation and delivery of lunches to four schools in the Burlingame school district.

"I started out taking orders for the lunches, but after I did that job a while, I noticed that there was a problem. I could tell just by taking the orders that the kids clearly didn't like a lot of what was being served."

Curious, she headed to the lunchroom and positioned herself near the tables -- and near the garbage cans. "I looked at what parents were packing and I listened to what the kids said they hated. I watched them throw out those nubby carrots, but eat the thin carrot sticks. I saw that they liked oranges but they couldn't peel them." Her solution was a lunch program with just four main dishes and a large fruit and salad bar.

"What we do is serve unlimited fruit and vegetables. They are encouraged to take what their belly says. We saw kids gradually start to eat a lot more fruits and vegetables. A lot of times, they'd pick something up and ask, what is this? Then they'd watch another child eat it, and soon they'd try it. No one made them eat it."

As she and her employees serve the lunches, they encourage the children to put lots of colors on their plates. "We don't tell them to get a fruit or a veggie. We just talk about color, and that seems to work."

Among the other things that Domanico learned is that children appreciate great quality, and they do not like their fruit all mixed up. "People often think that kids don't care, so they give them the cheapest food they can find. We've found that kids do care. They like things that taste good and look good."

Because her hands are full raising her children, Domanico is not taking on any new schools at present, but other local companies are not only willing, but anxious to upgrade lunches to any school that will invite them into the cafeteria.

Easy as string cheese

One of the oldest such companies in the East Bay is Lunch 'N Munch in Kensington, which delivers bag and hot lunches to 11 schools in the area. Co-owner Lynn Sullivan is always happy to add a school to her list, she says, so long as it meets the 20-meal-per-day minimum for delivery.

"When we started this in 1991, we started small. We could only make bag lunches because we did not have a kitchen," she says. Since then, Sullivan and her son Quinn have opened Kensington Bistro, a commercial kitchen that allows them to offer an array of hot lunches. Although a few of the parents who use the lunch service do so because their children have special dietary needs, such as diabetes or allergies to gluten, most are simply busy moms who appreciate a little help.

Peggy Wincorn, of Oakland, whose children are now grown, still remembers how thankful she was when the program was first introduced at her child's school. "I think they sent home a flier or something like that," she says. "I'm not really sure, but the thing I do remember is how simple it was for me as the parent. The only thing I had to do is to track down my two boys and get them to fill out their order for the month."

Growing taste

Inspiration for putting fresh fruits and vegetables in the center of every child's plate goes to Berkeley's Alice Waters, who has invested decades in educating adults and children about the virtues of fresh, local, organic, sustainable foods. Perhaps her biggest contribution has been the Alice Waters Edible Schoolyard program, a hands-on food education program that puts Berkeley kids in the field to grow, tend and harvest their own food, then to prepare it themselves.

Waters' program has been growing since it started seven years ago. The eventual goal of the program is to extend its organic, sustainable lunches to every student in the district. To do that, every school in Berkeley will need to have its own garden and full service cafeteria.

In the meantime, the Chez Panisse Foundation has hired a chef whose goal is to revamp the eating habits of all Berkeley children -- one salad bar at a time. Her goal is to wean Berkeley's children off junk -- pizza and hot dogs -- by getting them hooked on fresh vegetables and fruits. The problem, of course, is that not everyone happens to live in Berkeley, or in other school districts where such widespread efforts are being made.

But options for those who live outside the healthy lunch loop are expanding as well. One of the newest and least-complicated ideas is the lunch that Planet Organics in South San Francisco rolled out in March, a box lunch that parents can purchase by the week to send to school with their children. Everything in the lunch is shelf-stable for an entire week. Everything is also kid-tested and kid-approved.

"The whole idea for this is really personal," says Larry Bearg, CEO and the father of two children. "I just got to thinking one day how nice it would be to have a lunch that was ready to go. Mornings can get really crazy at our house. We get up late, or something goes wrong. I just suspected that we weren't the only ones who had the same problem."

The lunches, which are $4.99 each, sold well until the summer months, Bearg says. He expects that the demand will increase in the next few weeks, but he isn't sure what to expect. "We don't really know. We are just trying this out. We're planning to add some things, like turkey burritos, but we have no idea if they will take off. Our thinking is that often we find that when we start something small and find out that there is a demand, if we increase the options, the demand increases."


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