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Children attending local public schools were treated to this meal on Cinco de Mayo. Notice all the fruit.

(photo by Dona Richwine)

SMMUSD HDQTRS — School lunches are not what they used to be.

Gone are the days of deep-fried mozzarella sticks with a suggestion of vegetable in the marinara sauce. Soda, fizzed away. Even the mystery has been taken out of meat.

State and federal standards put in place over the last decades have sought to improve the quality of food available to students in an effort to maximize learning by upping nutrition and minimizing poor health.

Santa Monica schools took those standards and ran with them.

According to a report released last week, state auditors gave the Food and Nutrition Services Division high marks for meeting and exceeding the exacting requirements, which include calorie counts and nutritional analysis.

They pointed out in glowing terms the emphasis on fruits and vegetables — which SMMUSD officials provide in excess of the required amounts — and staff’s encouragement of children to try the healthier options.

“Thank you for feeding our future generation,” the auditor wrote.

Passing the audit has a monetary component because the federal government gives the school district cash for meals that meet its requirements, said Orlando Griego, director of the Food and Nutrition Services Division.

“We get $2.72 for every free meal that we serve, and less for a reduced meal or paid meal,” Griego said.

But while the government requires that a certain composition of foods appears on every plate, and state law puts regulations on how much saturated fat turns up in your taco meat, neither mandates that those vegetables get sourced from local farmers, or that the schools produce freshly prepared salads for students on the go.

Griego’s division goes to those lengths for two reasons.

First, staff wants to promote healthy eating and create partnerships with the community.

Secondly, they have clients to please.

“We don’t get any money from the general fund,” Griego said. “Federal and state reimbursements or what comes in through the cash register is what’s used to pay for salaries, benefits, equipment and food.”

That means that the Food and Nutrition Services Division serves two taskmasters: The state and federal governments that restrict what it can serve, and students that have to like what’s offered to keep the whole system running.

That can mean getting a little inventive.

The district conducts surveys and polls to keep ahead of the game. At the high school level, students get vested with the responsibility to keep businesses like the Vike’s Inn Cafe operating profitably.

Engaging students in their food through local celebrities can also be a backdoor to education and nutrition.

At Olympic High School, nutritionist Dona Richwine helped to set up school gardens that get used by local chefs to source their restaurants.

“The school gardens become a nutrition and education piece,” Richwine said. “We’re teaming up with the chef from the Fig Restaurant, and he’s taking some of the produce back to Fig to use on his menu.”

School board member Nimish Patel was thrilled to hear about the schools’ nutritional report card.

“We need to celebrate the successes that we do have,” Patel said. “One of those is that the district is serving fresh fruits and vegetables, and doing it with the Farmers’ Market. We believe in healthy eating and diet, and what better way to do it than in the schools.”

ashley@www.smdp.com

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