About a dozen Santa Clarita students and their parents gathered Wednesday night at the Santa Clarita Valley Boys & Girls Club on Newhall Avenue to discuss school lunches.
Jane Crawford, director of the Food Services Agency, which serves more than 11,000 lunches within four Santa Clarita Valley elementary school districts, knew there were concerns about school lunches – and she wanted to hear them straight from the children’s mouths.
The two-hour meeting offered lessons in leadership, community involvement and how children can make a change.
In recent years, the school lunch industry has faced new challenges, Crawford said, specifically because of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which was passed in 2010.
There are now stricter regulations on what can be served to children, and federally mandated whole grain requirements don’t always make for appetizing dishes, she said.
But Crawford wanted to engage the children, let them know their voices would be heard and do what she could to help.
Perhaps fittingly, the idea for the meeting began with a conversation around the table at supper time.
“Originally, it started with a dinner conversation with the kids,” said Amber Martinez, a mother with two children who attend McGrath Elementary School.
Her children were the two helped spur Wednesday’s meeting.
Her children would occasionally feel sick after school lunches, Martinez said; other times, they might come home hungry not long after lunch was served — because they didn’t want to eat it.
“As soon as I asked them, ‘What did you eat? How was the food?’ It was like opening up a Pandora’s Box,” she said.
“I, myself, honestly don’t like some of the food,” said Christian, a 12-year-old McGrath Elementary sixth-grader, at the meeting. “The main reason is because they either undercook it, or they overcook it. Also, they don’t have a good variety of fruit.”
The over- and undercooking critique might have come from the whole grain requirements, Crawford hypothesized, noting it can make food seem “squishy” when that shouldn’t necessarily be the case, or have a harder texture than what students might consider as the norm.
As Amber Martinez, a patients benefit coordinator at Samuel Dixon Family Health Centers, listened to the concerns from her children a few weeks ago, she realized the experience was a teaching opportunity.
She wanted her son to know he could make a difference and improve things for his younger sister, Elena. Both children said their friends shared their complaints.
That was evident Wednesday, as students from McGrath Elementary, Sulphur Springs Elementary, West Creek Academy and Albert Einstein Academy for the Letters, Arts and Sciences were among the schools represented at the meeting in Newhall.
Amber Martinez explained to Christian what a petition was, and how it might be useful.
The teachers and his schoolmates began to take notice and helped him along.
After two days of passing around a petition at his K-6, Christian collected 78 signatures, he said.
“They didn’t need to read the paragraph I wrote explaining the petition,” Christian said, “they would just ask me, ‘Where do I sign?’”
Christian’s sister Elena, said she noticed some of the teachers on yard duty took unwrapped and uneaten food items from the trash, which were being re-served.
It was a practice absolutely not condoned by the Food Services Agency, Crawford said, who added that she was only made aware of that practice recently, but she made sure it was stopped immediately.
“Once the food leaves the cafeteria, we don’t want it to come back to the kitchen because of the health risks,” Crawford said.
A few of the children said the portions just didn’t fill them.
The calorie requirements also don’t take incorporate an accurate accounting of the discrepancy in size of the Food Services Agency’s clients, she said, noting officials are only allowed to add 50 calories more for sixth-graders compared to the meals prepared for first-graders.
The FSA’s burritos, which had long been a popular lunchtime staple, had turned into a taquito-sized offering, she said.
“Under the new science-based standards, school meals are ‘right-sized’ and reflect the appropriate balance between food groups,” according to a USDA summary. “Based on their age, students are getting the recommended portions.
The popular tater tots, which were also a longtime staple, were vanquished for sweet potato fries, which were pooh-poohed by the students at the Newhall gathering Wednesday.
While a taste-testing program officially has been defunded, Crawford said Food Services Agency officials still take the time to gather children’s opinions.
This was part of why she wanted to hear from all of the children there, she said, taking the time to call on all of them, with two other Food Services Agency employees also listening and taking notes.
“As of July 1, we have to have all of our grains, whole grain,” Crawford said, which, while allowing for healthier meals, also creates pasta with a less enjoyable texture.The biggest struggle with these new regulations is getting students to eat required foods that they may not enjoy, Crawford said.
Food Services Agency officials have their hands tied, not by funding constraints as much as federal guidelines for the food they can serve, Crawford said.
“‘The pizza is terrible, the crust is terrible,’” she said, reiterating complaints she’s heard from children. “As soon as they lifted the grain limits, we’re then able to have a crust that’s comparable to what we were trying to do.”
Crawford said she met with Kyle Lykins, an legislative correspondent to Congressman Howard “Buck” McKeon, R- Santa Clarita, regarding the standards, and hoped to encourage more dialogue and feedback from the community.
Amber Martinez said she could tell workers with the Food Services Agency were listening, and she’s noticed a difference in the last few weeks, since the conversation was started.
The message has found a wider audience, also. The children met Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, on Saturday, and mentioned the concerns. Christian and Elena are planning to start a youth coalition called Hearing our Voices, as well.
Christian and Elena created a poster as a thank you for the Food Services Agency staff who came to the meeting last week.
“What we’re trying to do is inform people as to where we are with child nutrition,” Crawford said, “and have them make their voices known based on what they want to see happen with child nutrition.”