Last November, Beth Pascalli Hirsh was at Kings Beach Elementary during recess when she saw her daughter, a first grader, stuff something into her jacket. It was a Rice Krispie treat that she had bought at the school cafeteria. Hirsh was appalled.

‘Kings Beach was serving snacks like those you’d find at 7-Eleven, not at a school,’ said Hirsh, who is president of the Kings Beach Parent Teacher Organization. ‘I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me serving this type of food!’

Hirsh was so upset that she called up Steve Dickinson, Tahoe Truckee Unified School District assistant superintendent for finance, and arranged a meeting. Not only did she get Dickinson to sign off on the idea of changing the school lunch program, but she eventually got the entire district and board of trustee’s approval.

Thanks to Hirsh, Dickinson, and a team of other community leaders, parents, and food activists, by January all of TTUSD’s schools will start implementing the district’s new food program — replacing highly processed, packaged foods with fresh, nutritious food made from scratch. The district’s decision to move to a scratch kitchen and hire a culinary operations manager — essentially a personal chef for the district — puts TTUSD at the forefront of a national trend.

Food for thought
The food currently served to students within the district meets the nutritional requirements of the National School Lunch Program, which began in 1946 as a way to provide low cost or free school lunch meals to qualified students. (The School Breakfast Program was established in 1966.) However, the quality of the food left much to be desired. The majority is highly processed and packaged — making it high in sodium, fat, and preservatives — which is then reheated in school kitchens with little to no fresh fruit or vegetables.

‘It was essentially fast food,’ said Maria Martin, a registered dietician at the Tahoe Forest Health System’s Tahoe Center for Health & Sports Performance and a member of the Tahoe Truckee Nutrition Coalition, which brings nutrition and physical activity information for kids to agencies, hospitals, schools, and parents.

What students eat has a huge impact on their short- and long-term health. A poor diet is linked to many chronic diseases like diabetes and obesity — already an epidemic among American children — and early eating patterns usually extend into adulthood.

Children’s diets also affect their ability to concentrate and learn. According to the Society for Neuroscience, recent studies reveal that diets with high levels of saturated fats actually impair learning and memory. Schools that have banned fast foods, French fries, and chemically processed menu options are reporting less discipline problems, dropouts, expulsions, and fighting, with a simultaneous rise in student performance as grades improved.

TTUSD serves 1,800 lunches and 750 breakfasts daily at its 10 schools. Almost half the student population (42 percent) participates in the free and reduced meal program.

‘For a certain population, the only food they get is at school,’ Hirsh said. ‘We have a social responsibility to them.’

Classroom vs. cafeteria
For years, the Nutrition Coalition had been trying to make inroads with the district to get them to make improvements to its food program, but with little success. The district was stuck in its ways due to a combination of bureaucratic inertia, tight budgets, and the commodities-driven NSLP programs. Then, in 2004, Congress passed legislation requiring all schools to implement wellness policies that specify nutrition guidelines for all foods in the school. In 2007, Kings Beach Elementary became the first school in the district to create such a policy, which forbids students from bringing soda and candy to school and instructs parents and teachers to only provide healthy snacks for classroom celebrations.

However, the wellness policy did not apply to the district, creating a dichotomy between classroom and cafeteria and sending kids a mixed message — children couldn’t pack a candy bar in their lunch but were served Fruit Loops for breakfast. That was another reason for Hirsh’s outrage at discovering the Rice Krispie treat in her daughter’s jacket.

‘I couldn’t believe the school was doing this when they have a wellness policy!’ Hirsh said.

Hirsh translated her anger into action. She surveyed 40 parents in almost all the schools about their participation in the school lunch program. Her findings, although not scientific, showed that while 74 percent of children didn’t participate in the school lunch program, 88 percent of parents would purchase the food at full price if it was prepared fresh and the cost didn’t go up by more than $1. She brought her survey results, a mound of medical clinical data, and a six-page business plan to the meeting with Dickinson.

It didn’t take long before Dickinson was on board.

‘It was pretty easy to identify after Beth’s presentation … that there was an untapped market,’ Dickinson said. ‘So financially it was encouraging. It was worth the risk.’

That same month the two formed the School Food Improvement Committee under the umbrella of the Nutrition Coalition. The 11-person committee included Hirsh, Dickinson, Martin, Project MANA Truckee Program Director Kaili Sanchez, as well as other parents, restaurant owners, and school and county officials. The committee, which has met two to three times a week since its inception, came up with 11 guidelines for the TTUSD Food Services Department, including eliminating foods with hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup, serving organic foods when possible, and offering vegetarian and gluten-free options.

Riding the wave of change
At first, the committee was trying to find companies that could provide healthy lunches to the schools. But when that idea was shut down by TTUSD Food Services Director Rose Wolterbeek for being too expensive, the group came up with a more affordable alternative — hiring a culinary operations manager to develop nutritious recipes and menus, assist the district with transitioning to scratch cooking, and supervise food production at all 10 kitchen sites in the district.

This summer, the TTUSD Board of Trustees unanimously approved the new position. Danny Stoddard, who was a culinary chef at Disney World, was hired in September and started Oct. 8. Although the new food program won’t officially start until January, the district started implementing parts of it this year. Only rBST-free milk is being offered, and chocolate milk and sugar cereals were eliminated at the elementary level.

So why, after so many years of trying to get the district to change, is it suddenly happening now?

Besides Hirsh’s drive to change the school lunch program, the timing was right. With Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign to fight childhood obesity, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s TV show ‘Food Revolution,’ and the Child Nutrition Act (the major federal legislation that determines school food policy and resources) up for reauthorization in Congress, the importance of kids’ diets has entered the national consciousness.

‘The mentality is out there,’ Dickinson said. ‘There is a big wave we could easily get on and ride to pretty substantial change.’
Wolterbeek feels that the district’s new food policy — which is striving for a silver award as part of the Let’s Move! campaign’s HealthierUS School Challenge — puts it at the forefront of a national movement.

‘I think we are a model district,’ she said. ‘I’d say we’re on the leading edge.’