transforming school food talk

LBUSD's Elizabeth Batalao, in the striped blazer, and LA Food Policy Council's Iesha Siler, in the red hat, led a discussion at last week's event.

Last Wednesday evening, La Toya Mathews went to Fremont Elementary School with her kindergarten daughter, Page Mathews. The two attended a community forum on “Transforming School Food,” hosted by Long Beach Fresh.

La Toya said she was eager for change. Unhappy with the school menu, she wanted to push the district to provide more fresh food options. Page said she likes eating pancakes and grilled cheese sandwiches at Fremont but does not like most of the other meals.

The Mathews’s feelings highlight the question that many school districts face: can schools serve healthy food that children actually want to eat?

The forum opened with a panel presentation. Elizabeth Batalao, Administrative Dietician for Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) Nutritional Services, spoke about the current state of school food. She explained that the district, which feeds approximately 58,000 students each day, must comply with budget limits and dietary guidelines on sodium, fat, calories and food color. These restrictions limit the options the district can offer.

Batalao said she is always eager to hear parent feedback and is happy to attend PTA meetings and discuss food topics. She said she welcomes on-site wellness councils.

“Kids are very opinionated about what they eat,” Batalao said. “They tend to choose food that is packaged and wrapped and familiar. We have various programs to try to get them to try new things, but it’s hard to get them to change.”

Other panelists discussed ways to expand young palates and entice LBUSD students to move past their preference for comfort food. Kyle Johnson, a local chef known on Instagram as Marketlvr, said he loves making food a magical experience by using produce in unusual ways.

“I know how to make kids eat kale,” Johnson claimed.

GroundEducation works to serve a similar purpose. Founded by Holland Brown and Karen Taylor, this organization offers a T-K through fifth grade curriculum that gets children digging in the dirt and eating fresh vegetables. The duo now run nine different campus gardens and a program that reaches 3,500 Long Beach students each year, they said.

For the past 18 years, Chef Paul Buchanan has led an immersive two-day food forum for fourth graders at Fremont Elementary. “Days of Taste” helps students read and interpret food labels and understand where their food comes from. After a field trip to a farmers’ market, the children prepare and eat the produce they purchase.

“The kids become empowered and informed,” Buchanan said. “They learn to make better choices and they bring this knowledge home to their families.”

After the speakers finished their presentations, attendees got to meet with panelists for small group discussions. Snacking on carrots and cucumber slices, parents shared their hopes and concerns for food in the district. 

Tony Damico, one of the directors of Long Beach Fresh, said Transforming School Food was set up to facilitate communication and connection among stakeholders. By hosting events like this, Damico and co-director Ryan Smolar said they work to “build local economies, expand local networks and enable community change.”

To learn more about Long Beach Fresh and attend future events, go to www.lbfresh.org.

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