Another day, another depressing study about kids’ health – this time it’s Newsweek reporting that a projection by the Center for Disease Control indicates that nearly half of all African American and Latino children born in the US in the year 2000 will become diabetic at some point in their lives. By now everyone knows that today’s youth are facing an obesity crisis that threatens to make their generation the first in modern history to have a shorter life span than their parents’; less commonly discussed is how much harder poor communities of color are hit by this crisis.
Five years ago, the San Francisco Unified School District took action, unanimously passing a resolution to get soda and junk food out of the schools and establishing a committee to improve school food. Although much progress has been made, including the removal of junk food from cafeterias and vending machines, and upgrading the quality of the hot lunches with fresh fruit and whole grain breads, there is a huge barrier to further improvements, and I bet you can guess what it is. (If you guessed “money”, you get an A+.)
The shamefully low government reimbursement for meals served to low income students (57% of SFUSD students in 06-07), combined with the highest labor costs in the state (because it is expensive to live here!) means that there is just not enough money available to pay for better food. Happily, Mayor Gavin Newsom and the Department of Children, Youth and their Families have provided grant money to open salad bars in up to 25 schools later this year.
Soon, students choosing the hot lunch will also be able to visit a salad bar offering a mix of fresh greens, a variety of raw vegetable such as baby carrots, broccoli, and cherry tomatoes, plus fresh fruit and whole grain breads and muffins, all at no extra cost to students. The salad bar was piloted at 3 schools last year; at Balboa High School, 26% more students ate the school lunch once the salad bar was implemented, and virtually all of them were also students who qualified for free or reduced price meals.
Says Holley Wysong, RD, a Certified Diabetes Educator at California Pacific Medical Center, “This epidemic is in large part due to inadequate diet. Most American children are eating foods which promote obesity and lead to insulin resistance, the core defect in Type 2 diabetes. In addition, their diets lack the vitamins and minerals which might help prevent diabetes. Nutrients found in fresh fruits and vegetables and in whole grains can prevent insulin resistance, help regulate blood pressure, and decrease risk of heart disease. Eating fresh produce on a regular basis can help children to develop healthful eating habits for life.”
The salad bars, stocked by Preferred Meal Systems, will open first in middle and high schools that already receive hot meals from Preferred. Later in the year, about 10 elementary schools will open salad bars as well. Since all elementary schools get their hot meals from Preferred, how will the lucky ten be selected? Ideally, within 4 years, every elementary school will have a salad bar, but the first to receive them will be schools which do not require major structural modification to their cafeteria/kitchen space to accommodate the salad bar. Geography plays a role, as the initial schools will not all be clustered in one part of town. Other factors to be considered include the number of students qualifying for free or reduced price meals, and current lunch participation levels, as well as the presence of a school garden, a nutrition education program, or composting.
“Many studies have shown that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is associated with reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and some cancers”, says Laura Brainin-Rodriguez, coordinator of the SF Department of Public Health’s Feeling Good project. “Given the disproportionate risk for diabetes in youth of color, access to fruits and vegetables at school can help to bridge the gap in diet quality. By providing salad bars in schools we are increasing the likelihood that these young people will eat the suggested number of cups of fruits and vegetables which can lead to better health. ”
Most salad bars won’t open until later this year, but there are ways parents and teachers can encourage students to eat better right now. One of the most enjoyable ways to get kids interested in making smarter food choices is to visit a farmers market. We are fortunate here in SF to have farmers markets operating in nearly every part of the City, and most days of the week. Whether you are a teacher looking for a field trip destination to help your class learn about where food comes from, or a parent trying to interest your kids in eating fruits and vegetables, a trip to the farmers market is a great way to start. The produce is fresher and far tastier than what is available at the supermarket, and the farmers are eager not just to sell you their offerings, but to really get you to enjoy them. There are free samples galore, and many vendors will gladly advise you on the best ways to cook vegetables with which you might not be familiar (or even, in the case of the Brentwood corn lady, to suggest that you not cook it at all and just eat the kernels raw off the cob – delicious!)
There are lots of reasons why it makes sense to shop whenever you can at a farmers market – locally grown produce tastes better, is often cheaper than supermarket offerings, requires less energy to be brought to market, and supporting small family farms feels like the right thing to do. But the best reason is that finding ways to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables can make a big difference in their health.
Farmers Markets operating in San Francisco (some are year round, others run only through October or November)
Ferry Plaza Farmers Market
Market and Embarcadero
Crocker Galleria Farmers Market
50 Post at Montgomery
Heart of the City Farmers Market
Market Street between 7th and 8th
7am-5:30 pm Wednesday
Kaiser Hospital Farmers Market
2425 Geary Blvd.
Noe Valley Farmers Market
2861 – 24th Street near Sanchez
Alemany Farmers Market
100 Alemany Blvd.
Bayview Hunter Point Farmers Market
Bayview Opera House, 4703 Third Street
Fillmore Farmers Market
Fillmore St. @ O’Farrell
Dana Woldow is co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee, and the parent of one current SFUSD student and two SFUSD graduates.