By Evan Cornutt, Voicewaves
Cal State Long Beach student Blake Dempsey remembers one thing more than any other about his time growing up in the Long Beach Unified School District: the food.
He remembers countless over-processed, poor-tasting meals that to Dempsey, tasted like “prison food.”
Often the food would make him sick to his stomach and at one point he even threw it up. There was also no nutritional information on these items, so he had no idea how bad the food he was eating was.
By the time Blake reached high school, his disgust for the food had grown so much that he would avoid it at all costs and go off campus as much as he could at fast food restaurants. If he did choose to eat at school, he would buy a chicken sandwich that he described as gross, unhealthy and “failed to fill you up.”
His experience is very similar to that of most students currently in college: years and years of food that managed to be both unhealthy and unappetizing. This has led students to unhealthy alternatives like fast food and sweets to avoid school lunches.
According to Brooke Kugler, CSULB professor and nutritionist for the Moreno Valley district, most school districts have a central kitchen that sends out the food each morning to all the schools. This means one location is providing tens of thousands of meals every day. This is the case for Long Beach as the Nutrition Center produces meals daily for the whole district. Obviously, this means quality is very difficult to keep with such high quantities.
Fortunately, steps are being taken to improve the food. Local organization, Californian’s for Justice, began a campaign in 2009 called “Food for Thought” with that specific goal in mind.
According to Kenyon Davis, head of the Long Beach chapter of the organization, they started the campaign because the students complained that the food is “cold, processed and microwaved and everyone hates it.”
The campaign included rallies at the schools and a petition that asks for schools to provide more fresh fruits and vegetables. It also calls for the district to lower the amounts of grease and salt in the foods.
Californians for Justice is currently winding down the campaign because the district has significantly improved the quality of their food.
According to David Zito, Manager of the Production Center for LBUSD, a lot of these improvements began with First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity. One of the main reasons she began this campaign was due to the alarming rate at which childhood obesity is increasing.
From 1976 to 2006 the number of obese children aged 12-19 has more than doubled from 6.5 percent to 17 percent according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
In Long Beach, that number is even worse. According to the study “Rethinking Greater Long Beach,” close to 30 percent of fifth graders, 25 percent of seventh-graders and 21 percent of ninth-graders are obese.
After the campaign began, the school district has made numerous efforts to improve their food. David Zito said this year the school has removed all pork products from the meals and now uses more turkey meat, instead.
They also removed the sauces that have a meat base and removed meat from the chili that they produce.
Also, the nutrition center is taking it a step further by making sure fruit and vegetable are placed directly on the students' plates, rather than letting the students choose if they want them or not. Similarly, they now mix white and brown rices to ensure students are getting foods that are at least 50 percent whole grain.
A typical day at the plant involves creating the sauces used in the meals to assembling the sandwiches. The sauces are made in cauldrons and then put in bags that are designed to be able to be frozen and later heated up. Sandwiches have the meat cut in the back, are assembled, packaged and then sent out. The plant also bakes cookies and packages fruit cups.
The plant contracts with vendors who directly supply items like fruits and breads to the plant every day. The plant then ships everything out to the schools by 7:30 each morning. The plant is equipped to provide for both schools that do and do not have kitchens.
In total the plant provides around 85,000 meals a day to 87 locations. Students often come on field trips to the plant and are given the opportunity to see what goes into the making of their food.
Zito also estimates that the food has improved up to 70 percent since the campaign against childhood obesity began. Since he joined the nutrition center two and a half years ago, he has also begun several additional practices to improve the food even more. He throws away items like nacho cheese after one month when it is good for up to three so the cheese is fresher and retains more nutrients.
Zito says his goal is to stay ahead of the regulations, which have been getting stricter and stricter. For example, next year all the food has to be 100 percent whole grain. These changes will continue to make the food better and better and improve the health of the children.
Long Beach Wilson senior Juvonne Barnes has noticed the change.
“We’re now required to take two servings of either fruit or vegetables. More importantly, there are now some vegan and vegetarian options, but I would like to see more,” Barnes said.
These changes will hopefully not only help children become more healthy but also allow them to enjoy their food.
Blake Dempsey is jealous of the kids now saying, “Of course this would happen after I graduate.”