Vegetarian Action

The Greening of School Cafeterias

By Enrique Gili

Fresh produce grown by mom-and-pop farmers delivered directly to local markets was once the domain of upscale, latest-food-fad zip codes. Now, school districts across the country are dispensing with vending machines and replacing them with salad bars featuring such produce. According to a study released by the Center for Food and Justice, 400 schools nationwide have adopted some form of farm-to-school program offering healthy alternatives to chips and soda.

Students attending elementary schools in Compton, the economically disadvantaged center of Los Angeles, can now dig into healthy servings of fruits and vegetables delivered directly to the district’s kitchen pantries as part of a federally funded program designed to encourage children to develop healthier eating habits.

Compton, a district better renowned for gangsta rap than for farmer’s markets, presents a unique challenge to healthy food advocates. Composed largely of low-income African-American and Latino families, 25 percent of the area’s households live at or below the poverty level and nearly all of this district’s children qualify for free lunch.

Many of the school children don’t have access to fresh, good-quality fruits and vegetables, says Tracie Thomas, Compton’s recently appointed Assistant Food Service Director. For several years, she spearheaded a wildly successful farm-to-school program in the affluent Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica, where farmer’s markets and organic stores abound.

Compton’s mean streets have no such amenities. However, when the opportunity arose to implement a similar program in Compton, she jumped at the chance. Thomas is confident she can instill a lifetime of good eating habits among Compton’s students.

For now, she’s faced with a list of daunting tasks, beginning with pleasing the finicky palates of 40,000-50,000 students per day. Compton’s kitchen staff must be trained to prepare vegetarian meals throughout the district’s elementary and secondary schools. She must build a network of distributors with ties to local growers in Ventura County and plan meals based on the vagaries of seasonal crop production. On top of all of this, her district must deliver cost-effective meals under recent federal nutritional guidelines that recommend children eat eight to nine servings of fruits and vegetables per day.

Presently, 15 of Compton’s 24 elementary schools have salad bars. By Spring 2005, all the kindergarten through eighth grade campuses are scheduled to have them, with secondary schools to follow. The changes can’t come fast enough for Thomas. “Right now, we have a shortage of salad bars,” she says.

She is already gaining converts among young students. So far, approximately 50 percent of the children opt for salads and vegetables over the prepared hot meals. This is good news because, for many, school lunch is the only nutritionally balanced meal they’ll eat that day.

Farm-to-school programs are gaining momentum amid widespread concern over the increase in childhood obesity and a lifetime of weight-related health problems. Thomas believes the farm-to-school program is the first line of defense in battling the problem of obesity in America. Fortunately, a growing number of parents, educators, and bureaucrats agree with her. Advocates believe the benefits of the program are twofold—empowering children to make informed decisions about health and nutrition and assisting small-scale farmers in finding new markets for their produce.

To learn more about salad bars in the Compton school district, contact Tracie Thomas, Assistant Food Service Director, at (310) 639-4321, ext. 56681, or at trthomas@compton.k12.ca.us.

The National Farm to School Program helps school districts set up salad bar programs with regional workshops and other activities. More information is available at their website.

Enrique Gili is a San Diego-based freelance writer who covers health and sustainability issues for regional magazines and edits a blog.