It’s been over five years since Shoreline Unified School District adopted a wellness policy that calls for locally sourced and minimally processed meals for students, yet improvements have been slow to take effect.
Last month, the food services manager told the board that a lack of food service employees has hindered her ability to create a better menu.
“If there were more staff, each site could source local, but right now they are too busy,” Sherri Edwards told the board. “We are just trying to feed the kids right now.”
Shoreline’s food services staff includes six employees spread across five schools and 510 students.
Ms. Edwards is the only full-time employee, and she helps cook, serve and wash dishes by hand at Tomales High School in addition to ordering food, creating menus and submitting reports.
Aracely Rodriguez works six hours each day in a small kitchen at West Marin School, where she cooks, serves and washes dishes for 150 students.
At the same time, she prepares food for another 30 students at Inverness School, where an instructional assistant serves the meals.
All of the ideas for how to improve the menu are on the table, Ms. Edwards said, but the district must hire more cafeteria assistants before she can make significant changes. But that’s a view that diverges from that of Bob Raines, the district’s superintendent.
Speaking to the Light this week, he said Ms. Edwards should be able to continue her efforts at improving meals without more staffing. “We’re in a position now that we have the right processes and information in place so that we can fully implement the wellness policy,” he said.
Shoreline trustees approved Board Policy 5030 in 2014. The policy, which was created by Shoreline’s wellness advisory committee, calls for the district to reduce its reliance on pre-processed and packaged foods and to increase the number of items prepared in the district’s own kitchens. Its guidelines say that food should be organic when possible and free from artificial additives. It also calls for seasonal variations in the menu.
“The district will take steps in an effort to achieve at least 25 percent locally sourced products by 2015-2016, where local is defined as (ideally) within 100 miles,” the policy states.
The policy lays out steps for how to achieve this: develop long-term relationships with regional purveyors, partner with neighboring school districts to purchase collectively, and expand existing relationships with local suppliers.
Yet about 85 percent of the district’s food is still bought from Sysco, the world’s largest food distributor. Sysco delivers, while other providers won’t, and the district doesn’t have the staffing to pick anything up, said Ms. Edwards, who sits on the wellness committee.
Shoreline buys the rest of its food from the United States Department of Agriculture and three local vendors, although not all of the food those vendors supply is locally produced.
Each Monday, Marin Sonoma Produce delivers fresh produce, some of which comes from Salinas and Sonoma County, but in the winter months, most comes from Arizona and Mexico.
Another provider, Cotati Food Service, sometimes sources its produce from a local market, but it also often buys from national outlets. The third local provider, Clover Sonoma, sells local milk and dairy products to the district.
Shelton Livingston, a parent in the district, said her efforts to teach healthy eating to her children is undermined when they go to school. She became interested in the food at Shoreline after hearing her sons’ friends complain about it. She joined the wellness committee and received a copy of Board Policy 5030, which included recommendations that matched her aspirations.
“We’re in this agricultural area where so much good quality food is produced,” Ms. Livingston said. “Local farmers would contract with our schools to provide food. It just needs to be prioritized. Our kids’ health needs to be valued.”
Some small steps have been made to meet the wellness committee’s goals this year. Tomales High School added a salad bar three days a week, and cafeteria staff has improved specific menu items. The district replaced canned cheese with fresh cheese for macaroni, for example, and it replaced the ground beef in chili with ground turkey. For chicken sandwiches, it now orders raw, breaded patties instead of pre-cooked patties.
In response to a specific clause in the wellness policy that says the superintendent “shall encourage students’ consumption of water by educating them about the health benefits of water and serving water in an appealing manner,” the schools added filtered water stations and started selling stainless steel water bottles.
As for why it has taken over five years to begin implementing the policy, Mr. Raines pointed to changes in leadership at his position and on the business side. He joined the district in 2016, and a new director of fiscal services, Logan Martin, came on board last year.
Although these initial steps are important, Jill Manning-Sartori, the board chair and the chair of the wellness committee, said the district should put more funding toward nutrition this year.
“It’s all well and good to have a strong policy, but if it’s not implemented, then that is an empty promise,” she said. “To implement this properly, it’s going to require some additional staff.”
This year’s interim budget shows that the district will spend $500,000 on cafeteria expenses this school year. About 40 percent of that comes from government subsidies for free and reduced lunch and revenues from paid lunch; the rest comes from the district’s general fund.
Ms. Manning-Sartori said she is confident that the board can hire someone this year because the district is in a sound budgetary position.
Although Ms. Edwards said that hiring more assistants would solve most of her problems, she added that space is another hindrance to healthier menu. Bodega Bay and Tomales Elementary Schools don’t have kitchens, so employees pick up meals from the high school each morning. Certain foods don’t keep until lunchtime when they are prepared at 9 a.m.
Storage is another issue. Ms. Edwards is hoping to initiate a salad bar at the elementary schools one day a week, but doing so will require fridge space for produce and space for containers and serving utensils.
Board Policy 5030 sets goals for waste reduction. It says that the district should incorporate reusable dishes and utensils.
Currently, students eat with plastic utensils off of single-use dishes except at West Marin School, where trays are reused. Ms. Rodriguez tried offering washable utensils there, but too many students were throwing them away.
Another section of wellness focuses on the dining experience. It says that students should have access to comfortable dining facilities and lunch periods should be increased to at least 45 minutes.
None of the schools have a cafeteria, so students eat outside or in a classroom. Lunch lasts 30 minutes.
“It needs to be changed,” Ms. Edwards said. “They need an actual cafeteria with tables.”
In 2018, voters passed a bond measure that allowed Shoreline to spend $19.5 million for building improvements. Mr. Raines said that when the district set its spending priorities, issues like roofing and windows rose to the top over kitchen improvements.
Building a cafeteria did not come up, he said.