Building Up Breakfast
California takes on school breakfast after Monterey County girls say nutrition matters.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Research conducted by Monterey County girls is paving the way for statewide legislation that could improve access to school breakfast for tens of thousands of students. Now a long way from the Greenfield High School classrooms where students interviewed their peers about health concerns in 2009, a federal school breakfast program participation bill, AB 839, passed out of the California Assembly Education Committee on April 13.
When the Women’s Fund of Monterey County wanted to identify health concerns among young women, it enlisted 57 high school students to gather data. “One of the central tenets of the project was to have girls in the lead,” says Tobi Marcus, then-director of the Women’s Fund.
The findings – that 51 percent of the 1,200 respondents wanted more information about healthy eating, and girls identified weight or healthy eating as their biggest health concerns above sex, illness or substance abuse – prompted Marcus to take the data to the Junior League of California, where she volunteers as a legislative liaison.
Eyeing nearly $5.7 million of federal assistance that went unclaimed by Monterey County schools last year because of low participation in school breakfast programs, the Junior League partnered with Oakland-based California Food Policy Advocates to sponsor the breakfast bill.
The bill would require schools to report on participation levels and evaluate how well different service models work. Some schools find that “second chance” breakfasts offered mid-morning improve participation for those students who don’t come in early. Considering 70 percent of low-income students do not eat school breakfast, the bill would set the stage for strategies to improve access.
Even if students eat 10 meals a week at school, they still consume most of their meals outside the cafeteria. Still, “School meals are essential tools for helping kids stay healthy,” says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “Schools set an example. If schools serve junk food, kids quickly learn that eating this way is normal.”
Shifting norms towards healthier eating also is a public health priority for the 120 students at San Ardo Elementary School, where a weigh-in last year found 44 percent of children were obese, and a quarter of girls were “severely obese,” meaning they fall into the 99th percentile for body mass index.
Now, as part of a healthy eating effort in partnership with the County Health Department, the school is transitioning from a menu that previously offered no fruits or vegetables. The cafeteria introduced a salad bar in early April, a financial struggle considering the $2.72 per meal, per student federal reimbursement.
School board member and parent Irma Guerrero says one of her daughters is already losing weight and is more attentive to healthy snacking at home. “There is a need for more education, not just for the children, but for the parents,” she says. “It’s going to take not just the kids, but everyone in the community to be involved in the process.”
One girl behind the Women’s Fund study wants to stay involved. Jeanette Corona of Greenfield, now a freshman at UC Berkeley, plans to study public health. “It’s very rewarding,” she says, “because any work that comes from that little small town never gets noticed.”