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School Puts Healthy Eating Lesson on the Menu

Students at a private West Hollywood campus relish their veggies, but it uses a top-shelf supplier that could be out of reach for others.

May 17, 2006|Juliet Chung | Times Staff Writer

Forget the baked fries and turkey corndogs of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

As parents and educators nationwide grapple with how to combat childhood obesity and improve children's nutrition, a private West Hollywood elementary school has been experimenting with an unusual, upscale solution:

Hot lunches from Whole Foods Market.

Think baked chicken simmered with Kalamata olives and roasted red peppers. Freshly prepared lasagna layered with organic, turkey-studded marinara sauce. Jewel-toned zucchini steamed until fork-tender.

Even the school turtle, Chuck, dines on day-old vegetables and fruit from Whole Foods.

"Everybody ends up picking up on that talk [about obesity] and how Americans need to eat healthier," said Andrew Rakos, general manager of Fountain Day School, where tuition runs $850 per month.

"By helping children have a taste for whole foods and natural things instead of being soaked in salts and butters," Rakos said, "we're creating healthy bodies, healthy minds, healthy tastes."

Childhood obesity rates have been climbing for years, mimicking the expanding bulge of adults' waistlines. In 1980, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counted as overweight -- its most serious categorization for children -- 7% of those ages 6 to 11. By 2004, that figure had more than doubled to 18.8%.

School districts around the country have responded by axing lucrative soda contracts, booting junk food from campus vending machines and revamping their lunch menus. Some schools, notably the Berkeley middle school adopted by food guru Alice Waters, have begun planting campus gardens and using the harvest in school lunches.

That impulse has taken root locally, too. In the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, for example, campuses feature farmers market produce in their salads. Los Angeles Leadership Academy, a charter school in Koreatown, boasts a scratch kitchen from which sugar, refined flour and red meat are exiled.

A collaborative of California growers keeps salad bars at public schools from Ventura to Compton stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables. And students at Normandie Avenue Elementary in South Los Angeles hope to use the yield from the vegetable beds and fruit trees they planted in the same way.

But education and health experts, who have warned for years that obesity increases the risk of conditions such as Type 2 diabetes, say few schools have taken the tack adopted by Fountain Day.

"More and more schools are feeling accountable for the health environment that they create ... but this is the first example I've heard of a school doing that," said Kelly D. Brownell, the co-founder and director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

The organic grazing begins for most students at 10 a.m., when teachers hand out oranges or apples -- deep red Arkansas Blacks, when available. Around noon, they begin lunching on meals wheeled over from the West Hollywood Whole Foods half a block away.

The high-end grocer's saturation of the school is not absolute. Teachers occasionally serve Doritos as snacks or let parents bring in frosted cupcakes for a child's birthday.

But Fountain Day's clear emphasis on fresh fare, free from trans fats and organic when possible, has won points with many parents -- even if contracting out with Whole Foods strikes some observers as over the top.

"My son announced to me that he liked broccoli. I just about fell over," said Terry Snyder, who attributes his 4-year-old's fondness for fruits and vegetables to the Whole Foods program. "I couldn't have told you what broccoli was until I was about 10 or 11."

Then there is the simple satisfaction parents take in knowing their children eat well, though their own meals may pale in comparison.

"I always joke around with [my daughter, Anna,] that I want to come and eat lunch with her at her school," said Ingrid Payton, who typically lunches on turkey sandwiches.

Another reason parents cheer: The school's owners decided to swallow the 20% price increase over their old food budget rather than raise the tuition. Owner Mary Nouskajian said it's part of the school's attempt to cater to working parents.

But some education and nutrition experts said they worry about the program's implications.

"If people can afford it, then, wow, that's great. But what's kind of sad about it is, are we seeing the haves and the have-nots growing further apart?" asked Alicia Moag-Stahlberg, executive director of the nonprofit Action for Healthy Kids.

She said such a dramatic approach could discourage less affluent schools from tweaking their food programs.

"You can improve school nutrition without having to do the high-cost and the organic," she added.

Rakos, Fountain Day's general manager, said the school simply wants to instill healthy habits in students and that there have already been positive effects, including fewer stomachaches and increased attention spans.

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