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Local schools incorporate nutritional awareness

By Jeffrey Obser, Daily Planet Staff
Saturday October 20, 2001

John Muir Elementary School held a Squash-o-Rama Friday, part of an ongoing effort in the district and around the state to promote nutritional awareness among young students. 

At lunchtime, students lined up to sample dozens of delectable frittatas, sautés, pasta-like casseroles, and even desserts, all prepared and served by parent volunteers. 

Nabil Abdelfattah, father of a third-grader, said the children had learned this: “There’s life beyond hot dogs.” 

Squash-o-Rama, and a mini student walk-a-thon afterwards, both stemmed from federal and nonprofit grants aimed at helping young kids appreciate healthy foods and exercise.  

“The main thrust of this is the rising trend of obesity, childhood diabetes, and poor nutrition that’s leading to chronic disease and cancer,” said Erica Peng, who supervises the school district’s Nutrition Network Program. 

In 1996, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began targeting a portion of its food-stamp funds toward education, encouraging healthier eating habits among kids from low-income households. 

This year, 10 Berkeley schools have divided up $1 million from those funds, distributed throughout the state health services department’s Nutrition Network program. Local governments, churches and colleges have also received money from the state to seed farmers’ markets and conduct health education. 

The school district pays stipends to about 30 teachers to teach gardening and cooking classes and find ways to incorporate nutrition into the broader instructional program. It also holds one-time trainings for afterschool coordinators and extended day care teachers, Peng said. 

The most visible result of the nutrition push has been salad bars offering Berkeley Farmers’ Market fare in school cafeterias – a popular addition, according to Peng. 

“The test will be that enough participation happens that a profit can be generated” to help sustain nutritional services beyond the grant money,” she said. 

In Berkeley, the program is supplemented by nonprofit aid, most significantly from the Center for Eco-Literacy. Four elementary schools (John Muir, Rosa Parks, Washington, and Oxford) and the Common Ground small school at Berkeley High have received $10,000 each from the Berkeley nonprofit. 

Nutrition Network funds are also at work elsewhere in the city. Berkeley’s public health department sponsors a part-time education instructor at the Berkeley High student health center, and the Berkeley Food Policy Council runs a Tuesday afternoon mini-farmer’s market at the Bay Area Hispano Institute for Advancement day care center at 1000 Camelia Street.  

California is one of 20 states participating in the federal grant, said David Ginsburg, a cancer prevention and nutrition expert at the state health services department. The state received about $48 million this fiscal year. 

“It’s a significant amount of money,” Ginsburg said. “We’re really excited about that because it has now allowed nutritional education to begin having a presence in local communities where it has had very little before.” 

The federal government’s generosity looks like it is set to shrink, though. When the grant first came into effect, California schools received funds if 40 percent of their students were eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches. (All students in participating schools then have access to the funded programs.) Other states all needed that ratio to be 50 percent, but California had a waiver. 

Last year, that waiver was not available. And the state recently notified the district that next year, only schools where 50 percent of the students receive free lunches, not reduced-cost lunches, will be eligible. 

“I would say the change in the administration” led to the added restriction, Peng said, adding that it could reduce the number of eligible schools from 10 to “four or five.” 

However, she and others plan to sign up more kids for the lunch program. 

“We’re partnering with afterschool programs, and they’re working with Lifelong Medical, a local nonprofit health provider, in trying to get sign-ups for free and reduced (meals),” Peng said. Due to stigma and language barriers, she said, the lunch program rosters “don’t reflect the actual numbers at the school site; they reflect who got the forms back.” 

Waters, the John Muir principal, said she was careful not to have nutritional education ruffle parents’ feathers back in the kitchen at home. 

“Kids are pretty open to the training or information they receive at school,” Waters said, “and then I think it’s an opportunity for them to have discussions with their families.” 

One John Muir teacher plans to fend off the Halloween sugar tsunami by challenging kids to bring in anything nutritious that is colored orange, black, or yellow. 

“So you might get the pumpkin muffin, but you wouldn’t get the white flour cupcake with the pile of icing on top,” Waters said.