20 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY january 18-24, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com tunities for students to learn about nutrition and agriculture. Doherty says the program has allowed the district to purchase higher-quality meat and vegetables from local vendors, including Cream Co. Meats and Coke Farm, a food hub in San Juan Bautista representing over 70 organic growers. SCESD has partnered with the Salinas nonprofit Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), Taylor Farms and Watsonville Coast Produce for ingredients. School districts also offer meatless options and alternatives for students who have allergies. SCESD, for example, is a nut-free district and instead of PB&J serves sunbutter, a sunflower seed butter. “There’s so many kids that are allergic to nuts,” Varela says, adding that her own daughter has a nut allergy. (MPUSD doesn’t prepare meals with nuts, but does offer wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.) At SCESD, there are colorful salad bars where kids from transitional kindergarten to fifth grade can pick and choose which vegetables they want to eat that day. “They can get as much as they want from the salad bar, as long as they don’t waste it,” Varela says. Jicama and cucumber with low-sodium Tajin, a chili powder seasoning, is a popular item across some districts. (Eating chopped fruit with chili and lime is very common in Mexican culture.) At SCESD, they also serve 2-percent sugar cereals paired with fruits like bananas to add more sweetness without adding more processed sugar. High sugar intake increases the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental cavities. Last year USDA announced new nutritional guidelines, including reducing the amount of fat, sugar and salt students consume at school. In NMCUSD, the team has worked to reduce sugar intake by 7 pounds per student per year. You can still find American classics like hot dogs, pizza and peanut butter sandwiches in school cafeterias. But districts are also taking into account cultural preferences for certain foods. In Monterey County, with a majority-Latino population, that means introducing dishes like chicken pozole, conchas (but a whole grain version) or jicama and cucumbers with low-sodium Tajin to some districts’ menus. “We did a survey of our high school students last year to see what they want, and they wanted more culturally relevant Hispanic food. We quickly shifted,” Doherty says. At SCESD, a veggie wrap that was recently added has been popular. Varela says it’s very important what the first group of kids think about a dish. “If they see the front of the line likes it, then they’ll try it, [if] they see that they don’t like it all of a sudden no one likes it,” Varela adds, noting their menu is based on students’ recommendations and results of food samples they share with them. “They do love their tamales,” Varela adds. “And we added a baked potato that they can load vegetables on if they want.” “We do have very strict dietary guidelines that we have to follow. But it doesn’t make it impossible. You just have to be creative,” Doherty says of the North Monterey County menu. By law, students have to take with them the entire meal, which at lunch includes an entree, fruit, vegetables and milk. And, of course, while districts may be thoughtful about what they serve to create a balanced meal, and kids take a plate that represents nutritional guidelines, there’s no way to require them to eat everything on their plate. CUSD added popular grab-and-go breakfast items like string cheese and boiled eggs to the breakfast menu to boost protein consumption. And salad bars look great, but they’re not for everyone: “The little kids don’t like the salads too much,” Supancic said. There are fundamental challenges to offering standardized meals and portions. For some kids, especially student-athletes, an entire tray may not be enough calories. For others, it’s too much and leads to a lot of food waste. MPUSD campuses offer a share tray, where students can place items—whole fruit, snacks or small salads—they don’t want, and others can grab an extra apple or nuts. Students offer mixed reviews about school meals. “Sometimes it can be unhealthy, but a lot of times there are a lot of good healthy options and the school provides multiple options for us,” says Mary Lamb, 14, a freshman at Marina High School. Lamb likes the salad bar and chooses the vegetables she likes, such as cucumber, tomatoes and cauliflower. “We have a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables that we put into our salads, and I really enjoy them,” Lamb adds. Karina Jimenez, 16, a junior at North Monterey County High, grabs an orange chicken with fried rice on Wednesday, Jan. 10. She eats only the chicken and leaves the rice behind, because it is too dry, she says: “Only the chicken actually tastes good.” She finds that portions of some entrees are also too small. The chicken pozole, for example, has too much broth to her liking and little chicken and hominy. Alexia Almanza, 15, a sophomore at NMHS, is eating a turkey sandwich. Almanza likes the variety of food the school cafeteria offers and notes, “If you don’t like the food that they’re giving [that day], there’s always a salad.” Almanza says tortas and green pozole are favorite lunches, highlighting those are also meals she will eat at home. Almanza thinks she eats more vegetables and fruits at school and hopes the kitchen will offer acai bowls with granola for breakfast. At Monterey High School, the main entree on Friday, Jan. 5 is pizza—either cheese, veggie or pepperoni. Sides are apples or bananas and the salad bar or mini kale salads. (There are also some vegetarian and non-vegetarian salads as alternative entrees.) Andrew McDowell, 16, a junior and student-athlete, says meal portions are enough. But he thinks quality is declining—he remembers a bowl with eggs and potatoes he used to like. Some of his favorite school lunches are wings or popcorn chicken. And some sweets have simply gone away, which might be good for nutrition guidelines, but it’s not met with positive reviews from students. McDowell adds, “We used to have cookies and that disappeared.” The team has worked to reduce sugar intake by 7 pounds per student per year. Schools use technology to share menu and nutrition information with students and their families. Above left: SCESD’s site shows nutritional values and pictures of menu items. Parents can build a meal, print a menu and filter for allergens or particular diet options. Above right: NMCUSD’s portal allows students to calculate how many calories, carbs and fat they will consume per meal, including drinks.