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More Schools Offering Organic Lunch Choices

Nutrition: Parents and even kids like the healthy alternatives. Cost and availability are issues.

October 06, 2002|KAREN ALEXANDER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

PALO ALTO — It was a special occasion when 7-year-old Alex Tseng's mother sent him to school with enough money to buy the organic lunch entree at Ohlone Elementary last Wednesday; she usually packs him a lunch at home.

Organic choices made it onto the school lunch menu this year as part of a fledgling effort to bring healthier, responsibly farmed nutrition options to Palo Alto's elementary schools--a project spearheaded by local parents, politicians and a prominent Bay Area restaurateur. Despite a somewhat rocky start, they hope the effort will become a model for other school districts.

The quality of school lunches has received renewed attention in recent years, as childhood obesity and diabetes rates have spiked nationwide. A state law signed last year, set to take effect in 2004, will restrict high-fat, high-sugar foods at elementary and middle schools and will limit the sale of sodas at middle schools to non-school hours.

In the Bay Area, where local farmers markets are so popular that towns are often hard-pressed to find enough farmers to meet demand, there is no shortage of adults who would rather see chicken-free soy nuggets on the menu than BBQ rib sandwiches. But whether the kids will go for it, and how much parents are actually willing to pay for those choices, is unclear.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 08, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 292 words Type of Material: Correction
Restaurant owner--A story in the California section Sunday on organic lunches served at Palo Alto schools omitted the first name of Bay Area restaurant owner Jesse Cool.

Across San Francisco Bay at Berkeley High School, a year-old program that allowed local restaurants to sell healthy lunches on campus was recently canceled.

The program drew celebrity chef Alice Waters from her nearby restaurant Chez Panisse, but it was dropped last month for lack of interest. High schoolers, it seemed, like their junk food.

Despite that program's lack of success, the Berkeley Unified School District is committed to move toward organic and locally farmed products for its school lunch programs. "Whenever we can find something affordable that is packaged in a way that makes sense for the schools, we bring it in," said Karen Candito, Berkeley Unified's nutrition services director.

In Palo Alto, price has been an obstacle to the organic lunch program's success. Although a special taste-test event last year drew rave reviews, fewer than 10% of the lunches sold to elementary school children are from the organic menu.

The organic lunches were originally offered for $4.50, while the regular school lunch is only $2.50. The price for organics was quickly lowered to $2.50, in part because the district hasn't been able to offer enough organic food options to put together a whole lunch every day. Kids can get the organic entree a la carte, but no organic side dishes are available.

Not only is price a concern, but so is finding enough organic choices to keep kids interested.

Many organic food companies don't package or distribute their products in a format that's practical for use in large-scale food-service projects, said Alva Spence, the area manager for Sodexho, the firm that provides food service for the Palo Alto Unified School District.

"It hasn't been easy," Spence said. "We've had to forge a little bit of new territory to get some of these products in."

So far, there are just enough organic entrees available to offer something new each day of the week, from macaroni and cheese to bean and rice burritos. Cool has been working closely with Spence to identify products that might be incorporated into the district's lunch program.

"At this point we're just trying to test the waters and see what we can do," Spence said. "Already there are a lot of districts asking me questions. There's a lot of interest."

Alex Tseng, a second-grader, said he doesn't know what organic means, although he thinks it might be healthy. He just thought the organic cheese lasagna sounded really good and he was able to persuade his mother to let him have it.

"We don't really follow organic food at home. I think it's good, but it's quite expensive," said Alex's mother, Weili Tseng. "If they can lower the price, I think maybe I'm going to let Alex have the organic lunch."

At school last Wednesday, Alex was indeed looking forward to his special lunch. Alex waited patiently for what seemed like hours, and when he reached the front of the lunch line he learned that pizza pockets had been substituted for lasagna at the last minute. It was fine with him; he likes those too.

And then he realized something really cool. The price for organic lunch had been lowered, and Alex found he had an extra dollar in his hand. He quickly did the math and ordered up a package each of Oreo cookies and Cheez-Its crackers to go with the pizza pocket, orange and milk on his Styrofoam tray.

The pizza pocket was a hit. "It tastes like tacos," he said.

His only hurdle now was finishing it all up before the lunch hour was over.

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