School kitchens are transforming to provide higher-quality, healthier meals for kids

Monterey County Weekly

Jan 18, 2024

ON THE LUNCH MENU ON A RECENT THURSDAY AT NORTH MONTEREY HIGH SCHOOL IN CASTROVILLE ARE A FEW OPTIONS: teriyaki chicken, a crispy chicken sandwich with spicy coleslaw, a chicken cobb salad or a ham and cheese sandwich on ciabatta, all served with a portion of veggies and fruit alongside.

It sounds more like a list of what you might find at a restaurant than a high school cafeteria. That is, if you’re comparing to the days of meatloaf or limp spaghetti, with just one option for all kids. In cafeterias of Salinas City Elementary and Monterey Peninsula Unified school districts, schools offer a salad bar loaded with fresh sliced cucumbers, lettuce, carrots and other vegetables to choose from – representing a different framework than in 1981, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service proposed counting relish or ketchup as a vegetable.

Since Barack Obama’s administration, there has been a switch to providing healthier – and tastier – food in schools. “School food service is the biggest restaurant chain in America. It’s bigger than McDonald’s, bigger than Starbucks,” says Sara Doherty, director of nutrition services and wellness at North Monterey County Unified School District.

Every day, NMCUSD serves an average of 5,500 meals including breakfast, lunch, snacks and supper. Salinas City Elementary School District serves 7,680 meals daily across 14 schools; and Monterey Peninsula Unified School District serves 11,000. (These are just three of Monterey County’s 24 school districts feeding students daily.)

California produces nearly half of the fruits and vegetables nationwide, yet 1 in 5 Californians are food insecure. These numbers are higher among Latino and Black Californians, 27.5 and 28.9 percent, respectively. Monterey County’s population is 60.8-percent Latino. The Salinas Valley is known as the Salad Bowl of the World, yet 40.8 percent of Monterey County residents are food insecure, according to the 2022 Community Health Needs Assessment, produced by the four local hospital systems plus the Monterey County Health Department and United Way. Meanwhile, 18.4 percent of Monterey County children ages 0-17 live below the federal poverty level. And 42.7 percent of children ages 5-17 are considered obese or overweight.

All of these issues – poverty, nutrition and health – converge in official thinking about school lunch. Children need a balanced diet to develop their brains and bodies, and good nutrition is linked to academic achievement. According to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2019 national youth risk behavior survey, students with higher grades eat breakfast, fruits and vegetables daily.

School cafeterias are becoming an increasingly central place where officials are attempting to solve these problems, by increasing accessibility of meals for free (addressing poverty and access to food) and making meals more nutritious. Across the country, schools are required to serve meals at no charge to children whose household income is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines.

During the 2022-2023 school year, California became the first state to implement a statewide universal meals program for all students in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade. That means school lunch – as well as breakfast and supper – are now available to all students free of charge, regardless of income.

“It took away the stigma that was generally associated with school meals and eating at school,” says Micha James, MPUSD’s director of nutrition services. MPUSD, like other districts, has reported increased participation at all schools in the district – more kids are eating school lunch.