Ryah Cooley

Hermosa Beach parents push for nutrition in school lunches

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A school lunch for students at the Hermosa Beach City School District consisting of chicken nuggets, smiley-faced potatoes, choocolate milk and animal crackers. Photo courtesy of Tiffani Miller.

A school lunch for students at the Hermosa Beach City School District consisting of chicken nuggets, smiley-faced potatoes, choocolate milk and animal crackers. Photo courtesy of Tiffani Miller.

Tiffani Miller never saw the food her second grade daughter was served at lunch until she started volunteering at Hermosa View Elementary School this school year.

“I just assumed it was something healthy,” Miller said. “But then I saw her at lunch time and I saw what was on her plate…It was appalling and that’s when I decided that this was something that has to be changed.”

Meals for students include cheeseburgers that are heated in plastic, chicken nuggets, fish sticks and potatoes, and pizza day once a week. Kids also receive up to two bags of juice with lunch and usually a treat like a cookie. Lunch costs $3.50 and milk 50 cents. A salad bar is also available, but some parents say if a vegetable isn’t put on their tray, kids aren’t likely to pick one up.

Miller and a handful of other moms are concerned about school lunches featuring foods that aren’t fresh, contain unhealthy amounts of sugar, and are sometimes heated in plastic. The group voiced its concerns at the March 12 meeting of the Hermosa Beach City School District Board of Education. District officials told the parents the matter would be investigated but cautioned that changes may not occur quickly.

Superintendent Patricia Escalante said lunches are currently provided by the Torrance Unified School District because Hermosa Beach schools don’t have a fully functional kitchen. The district’s current contract with Torrance runs until June 2015 but could be broken with mutual consent from both parties within 30 days.

The group of Hermosa Beach moms is hoping for a change to a more health-conscious vendor as early as the beginning of the 2014-15 school year said Tara Hackley, who has sons in kindergarten and first grade at Hermosa View School.

Hackley is one of several moms who comes to Hermosa schools and teaches nutrition lessons through the Beach Cities Health District. Students learn to make healthy food and read nutrition labels. Hackley said that kids pick up on the discrepancies between what they learn and what is served for lunch.

“They get all this knowledge and information in these nutrition lessons and then they go get the school lunch and it’s just garbage,” Hackley said.

Hackley said one recent lunch offering included a tub of nacho jalapeno cheese with chips and a side of refried beans. While Hackley and many of the other moms leading the charge in changing the school food no longer allow their kids to buy lunch, she said that there are other children who don’t have that choice. She learned earlier this year that nearly 3 percent of the 1,426 students in the district qualify for free or reduced lunches.

“It irritated me that these kids are getting subpar nutrition every single day and they don’t even have a choice,” Hackley said. “It’s more about doing the right thing for all of the kids in this community, and someone has to do it.”

The parent group is currently looking at other vendors to bring to the district. They prefer meals for students that include whole foods without preservatives or chemicals. Hackley said foods on the so-called “dirty dozen” list of vegetables and fruits known to carry the most pesticides ideally would be organic, as would most dairy and meat products. The parents suggest that beverage options be limited water and milk. One vendor the group is investigating is Choicelunch, which provides kid-friendly meals like macaroni and cheese or burritos made with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Parents and their kids can also preselect their lunches ahead of time using a smart phone app. The cost of switching to Choicelunch is still unknown.

Escalante said that while it’s still early in the discussion, the school board is open to the possibility of changing school lunch offerings.

“We need to do a little research to find out what would be the best program, whether that’s the one we have or a new one,” Escalante said. “Everyone is coming together to share their perspectives, and that’s what I love about being a small school district.”

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