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Thursday, October 09, 2008

Davis Crunch Lunch: Isn't Nutrition for Kids Its Own Reward?

For some reason the Davis Crunch Lunch program has become the target of those who believe that the district is wasting taxpayer money.

The argument against such a program seems to be that having and establishing good eating habits among students, particularly low income students is not its own reward and that we should continue to provide cheap and prepackaged food as a cost saver.

It may actually turnout that both premises are incorrect.

The idea behind this program is that good nutrition and a healthy diet are related to positive academic and behavioral student performance in the classroom. Thus a school program that "integrates educational curriculum with garden activities, nutrition education, and healthy food choices in the school lunch program will contribute to improved health and overall student achievement."

As a study suggests:
A number of studies have shown the correlation between learning difficulties and diet. For many children in the public schools, breakfast (if it is served) and lunch are the only nutritionally balanced meals they receive during the day. Although the National School Lunch program ensures a minimum standard of nutrition for meals served in schools, many children select à la carte items, which are currently not held to the same standards. During the last decade, school nutrition services departments have been under tremendous pressure to remain financially solvent. Labor costs and rising food costs have prompted food service directors to seek alternative methods of cutting costs. One of those ways is to contract with outside companies, such as pizza, taco, and soft drink companies, to sell food in the school. Oftentimes, these companies offer schools large sums of money for the opportunity to sell on campuses. Students respond to these products because of the intense advertising that surrounds them every day on television and in the culture at large.

As a recent alternative to this situation, some school districts have developed salad bar programs that offer students the option of eating fresh fruits and vegetables. The assumption is that this not only reinforces life-long healthy eating habits, but improves their overall school performance. Sometimes these salad bars are an integrated component of a comprehensive Farm-to-School program that includes produce purchased from local farmers, visits to local farms, school gardening, cooking lessons, and enhanced nutrition education.
Back in 2001, Davis had a relatively low proportion of low-income families. A small percentage of students were eligible for free and reduced meals under the National School Lunch Program--13% free and 3% reduced.

This year the program has been expanded thanks to Measure Q and the Farm to School Program. We now have an Elementary School Salad Bar and Korematsu hot lunch and Salad Bar.

Most of the food services budget is a separate fund from the general fund with the exception of the Measure Q enhancement. The district needs to sell more food in order to break even in this program. The way to do that is to serve the kind of quality food that crunch lunch provides.

The results are promising. Normally meals average between 15 and 18 percent of total students. On pizza day and BBQ day, it goes up to as much as a third of the total students.

Those numbers have increased with the new program however. On Salad Bar Days to 10% in meals served and Korematsu has seen a 30 percent plus increase in the number of students served since the new program was implemented or 70 percent more meals.

On the other other, a lot of the pre-packaged salads are going unsold. Many school districts have tried to increase their sales by providing more popular but less nutritious food. This is in my opinion the wrong approach.

As we have discussed before, the crunch lunch program does not require additional staff. So there cost is not there to the district in terms of additional staff. This inaccurate statement has been repeated on a continual basis in the comment section. So I reiterate, the crunch lunch program requires no additional staff.

Davis Farm to Schools is a partner in this program. However, they are non-profit. No district funds flow through that organization.

The bottom line here that this program has the potential to be cost neutral. That is achieved because the school district has seen vastly improved sales on the days when the Salad Bar Days are served and the days when the Korematsu hot lunch days are served.

Right now, the district is implementing this on a pilot basis. They are rotating the programs between the schools on a daily basis in order to minimize stat-up costs while they assess the usage. Given the fact that the early results are so promising, we can expect the district to expand these lunch services and if they do, they will be more likely to break even or even have a net revenue. It is all based on providing a service that is needed--providing healthy and nutritious lunches to students who need to form good eating habits from day one. This is the type of program that we should be encouraging, not discouraging.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting