By Michelle Andujar
from Salem Weekly, Section Eat
Greasy cheeseburgers dripping with condiments, overflowing tacos, deep fried chicken nuggets with a side of fries. Make that cheese fries, or better yet, a bag of Doritos. If most children were choosing what they'd eat on a regular basis, the menu would be made up of gooey goodness. Let's face it; if it were up to most adults, based on the national obesity rates alone, they'd chow down on the same menu.
Today, school lunches aren’t quite as bad as one might imagine. The company making all the food for the Salem/Keizer school district for the past 31 years is the multinational Sodexo, based in France. They've repeatedly won the five-year contract because of their ability to offer the most competitive price, which includes the meal cost and the staff necessary to prepare it, deliver it and serve it.
In recent years, public schools have been pushed toward a healthier option. A menu at Salem/Keizer School District elementary schools includes vegetarian options, whole wheat grains in bread, non-hormone-injected dairy products, and even some fresh vegetables.
Some of Sodexo’s products are local, such as the beans and the milk (which is also hormone-free). Sodexo’s general manager and the District’s Food Services Director, Dave Harvey, says they would like to offer more local products but produce doesn’t grow all-year-round around here so they mostly buy it from California. He says organic food is also too costly to include in the schools’ menu. As it becomes more available and prices go down, he says it’s more likely to be included.
Is the effort enough? Not for some parents.
Julie Eaton, a parent of two Wright Elementary vegetarian students, is not satisfied with the options and she packs her kids' lunches most days.
"Once in a while I let them eat school lunch but I never feel right about it," she says, explaining that most of the fruits and vegetables look canned as opposed to fresh, and that sometimes they run out of the vegetarian option by the time her kids get to the cafeteria. When this happens, she says, the school grills them a cheese sandwich.
One solution to a healthier lunch period may be found growing in the fields of local farms.
The National Farm to School Network supports locally grown and healthy meals in school cafeterias, and providing agriculture, health and nutrition education for kids.
As Megan Kemple from the National Farm to School Network says, "It's important for students to understand where food comes from and have a connection to local farms."
On a state level, Representative Brian Clem (D-District 21) has taken the initiative on bringing local food to local schools. He says that because he married a farmer's daughter, he started wondering even before campaigning for office how much the government could spend on Oregon foods rather than importing it.
"When I was running for office in 2006, I gave a speech about what I would do and one of those things was to encourage a closer connection between farms and schools and prisons [institutions]," he says.
The struggle to reach the finish line has been going on since then. Clem has brought the issue back to the table this year by sponsoring House Bill 2800.
"It would stimulate the economy and prevent childhood obesity as well as provide environmental savings from [the reduced] transportation," he says.
They are currently working on the bill through committee and he expects to know in May or June whether there is money to fund the bill. They've amended the bill to reduce the cost from $20 million to $2 million by rolling out the program slowly.
"Local food is often fresher and it tastes fresher so kids are more likely to eat it. It hasn't been trucked from far away. Farm to school programs often set up posters and tasting tables in cafeterias so kids are more likely to try it," Kemple says.
One Salem company, Organic Fresh Fingers, is all about that. They deliver school lunches made with local ingredients, and founder Evann Remington helps schools set up composting sites as well as edible gardens that can be incorporated into the menu. Her dream is one day seeing schools grow most of their food, cook it onsite where all the students can smell it and feel connected to the cook and with the food, and have long lunch periods where the kids are taught table manners and nutrition.
That picture is far from the reality of public school lunches in Salem. At North Salem High, a staff of about ten serve thousands of kids who are divided into two 30-minute lunches.
A sample Sodexo menu at a local elementary consisted of teriyaki beef and broccoli over seasoned rice, beef and bean enchilada, cheeseburger on a multigrain bun, spinach salad with a roll, and turkey and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread. There's also an all-you-can-eat fruit and vegetable bar at every school.
Organic Fresh Fingers' sample lunch menu includes mac & cheese, bean and rice burritos, vegetarian chili, pizza bagels, quiche, and vegetable soup with a whole wheat roll.
Parents like Eaton like the fact that the company "hides extra nutrients" in the food, such as sweet potatoes or lentils in their spaghetti sauce.
"Our motto is always fresh and local, fresh and natural, or fresh and organic. We never use any artificial colors or flavors, only the purest, highest quality ingredients," says Remington, adding that her program is also lower in sodium and is leaner (currently, all Organic Fresh Fingers meals are vegetarian).
"Fifty percent of the meal, all of the produce, is organic. It's healthier as far as pesticide residue goes," she says, explaining that organic food is more expensive but it's important to buy organic especially when it comes to the raw part of the meal.
Organic Fresh Fingers' high school lunch costs $3.75 while Sodexo's costs $2.20. Breakfast is $2.25 while Sodexo's is $1.05. For the younger kids, Organic Fresh Fingers' lunch is a little lower than Sodexo's, costing $1.25 while theirs is $1.75.
Remington says her company offers other types of savings, including the environment. Sodexo cooks some of the meals that would go to all the schools in its central kitchen, divides them, and delivers them daily. Instead, Organic Fresh Fingers delivers the food frozen once a week to each school. Then it's ready to reheat and serve with fresh fruits and vegetables. Remington says this also saves in labor costs because only one part-time staff member is needed at each school. Remington says some of the schools have a volunteer parent. "They want healthier food and they find a way to make it work," she says.
This is the second year of the District’s current contract with Sodexo, and schools’ Superintendent Sandy Husk says, “Any company can bid for the work.” She also says that the school could potentially choose two different providers, but “In most cases it’s most competitive if we write it for one provider.” She adds that Sodexo has been “very committed to purchasing local” and that if parents have any concerns or an official request, they could bring it up to her or to Sodexo.
Organic Fresh Fingers is ready to bid for the contract next time it becomes available. They are already serving 20,000 lunches a month, compared to Sodexo's 20,000 daily lunches, but Remington says the company is expanding and would be ready to handle that volume by the end of the year.
She says that if her company is chosen in the future for Salem, it would employ lots of people in Salem, and it would also help the local economy by supporting local farmers. "We are dedicated to providing living wage, high quality jobs," she says.
Being based in Salem, she would love to have the market in her hands.
"I'm personally committed to Salem, and I'm trying really hard but there are some barriers. Unlike Portland, we don't really have parents aware of what's happening with school lunches and committed to making them healthier," says Remington, who would like to "put Salem on the map as a community that cares about healthy school lunch."
She says she has had a very positive response from parents whenever she has set up a booth at many local events.
"Salem parents are just as smart and just as interested [as Portland parents]. It's just that this kind of tipping point hasn't been reached," she says, pointing to an example of a charter school in Molalla:
"I finally had to shut the program down," she says, explaining that many parents were angry at the lack of meat in their kids' lunches.
"Sometimes a community has a certain kind of value system. They raise animals; many of them are hunters. They couldn't get over the fact city dwellers were trying to make hippies out of their kids!"
Hippie or not, Remington would like to offer meat, but it would have to be fresh, local and natural.
"I'm already working with a couple of natural growers and butchers. If I can get the volume up enough, I think we could absolutely incorporate [meat] at least in some of the meals," she says. "I think we're really close now."
Remington doesn't know if her food has had an impact on the schools' obesity rates so far, but she has heard testimony from teachers about how they believe the lighter vegetarian meals have had a positive effect on behavior in the classroom.
"The children are not all hyped-up or falling sleep," says Remington.
Remington has been focusing on private and charter schools and perfecting the model for her business. She did try to reach the Salem market by going through Sodexo.
"They're not interested. We're their competition," says Remington.
Harvey says he looked into Organic Fresh Fingers products but he didn't find them cost effective.
One way the two companies have come together is through the national government's competition "Recipes for Healthy Kids Challenge." Remington put together a team including a nutritionist from Sodexo, herself, local students, community members and chef David Rosales and they submitted a recipe. The public will vote in March and the judging period ends in May.
While Remington keeps trying to feed local school kids, she is also offering the larger Salem community an opportunity to try her food by placing an online order at organicfreshfingers.com and picking it up at 1010 Broadway NE.
Meal 1: an average Salem-Keizer School District elementary lunch
Total Fat: 20.41g
Saturated Fat: 5.78g
Meal 2: a sample menu from Organic Fresh Fingers
Total Fat 15.49g
Dietary Fiber 1.65g
We asked Maria Gutierrez, an assistant manager at GNC, to evaluate both meals. She did so blindly using only the nutritional facts given by both organizations.
Gutierrez concluded that "Meal 2" was the healthier meal for elementary school age kids. "Still not the best, but much better than Meal 1" she says.
Sodium played a key role in the decision.
"Meal 1 is almost more than what an adult should eat at one sitting. The sodium in Meal 1 is a little over half the daily amount an adult should take in."
She says that elementary school aged kids only need 1200-1500mg of sodium per day and only about 1200-1600 total calories depending on the gender and exact age of the child.