By emphasizing partnerships with community nonprofits and businesses, taking advantage of statewide grants and making good nutrition a financial priority, rural Fort Bragg Unified has continued to provide healthy food and nutrition education to its primarily low-income students, despite budget cuts.
The state Department of Education has recognized Fort Bragg as a model for Northern California under its Stepping Up to the Challenge, Creating A Healthy School Environment program. Pilar Gray, the district’s nutritional services director, does trainings for other small districts that are interested in improving their school meals.
“A lot of what we do is what happens when communities pull together,” she said. “Could this be done in large districts? Probably.”
Fort Bragg Unified is located in a small town of the same name along Highway 1 on the rugged coast of Mendocino County in Northern California. About two-thirds of the district’s 1,900 students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals. The town has a population of about 7,300, and the median annual household income is less than $29,000. Many graduates find employment in restaurants that cater to the local tourist trade.
“Not every child will go to college, but every child can go on and live a healthy life,” Gray said. “We have a rather poor community, with many homeless kids. Sometimes this is the only food they get, so we have to make it count.”
Nine years ago, Gray was hired to revamp the food service, which had relied primarily on packaged, precooked foods.
Today, all four major school sites (preschool–2nd, 3rd–5th, middle school, high school) have gardens. Every preschool and elementary school student spends time in the garden and is also taught about good nutrition. The two elementary gardens were built before Gray took over, with help from the local Rotary Club and other community groups.
Elementary schools have cooking classrooms where Julie Castillo, a full-time, credentialed “garden-enhanced nutrition educator,” teaches the students how to prepare what they grow. A grant from Network for a Healthy California, a state program aimed at improving the health of low-income residents, pays the salaries of two full-time nutrition educators and one part-time person.
Produce from the middle and high school gardens is used in school meals. Some middle and high school students also do gardening. Petra Schulte, the other full-time nutrition educator, teaches mostly at the middle school in the garden and in classrooms. For example, if a 6th grade history teacher is doing a unit on ancient Egypt, Schulte might teach about the foods they ate at that time and the nutritional benefits and uses today. Campbell Timberland Management, a national company that is one of the largest employers in Fort Bragg, paid for building the garden, including materials and labor donated by its employees and community members.
This year, the district opened a new culinary arts center at the high school to train future chefs. The high school garden is on school property leased by Noyo Food Forest (NFF), a nonprofit that grows organic produce and sells it wholesale, including to Fort Bragg Unified. NFF took an agriculture science building in disrepair surrounded by weeds and turned it into a profitable garden. NFF also offers internships to high school students and applies for grants that it uses to provide nutrition education to district children. One grant pays for a program that teaches teens about nutrition. The teens, in turn, teach the elementary school children.
Superintendent Donald Armstrong said everything used to be delivered to the remote district by truck. “We needed to find a way to be sustainable, to be independent,” he said. Besides buying local produce, the district also contracts with a local bakery for its bread. He pointed to the district’s wellness policy, which includes boosting “the long-term thriving of our local economy by eating locally-grown foods at school.”
Students and parents applaud the district’s efforts. Leah Martinez has two daughters in the district, one in high school and one in kindergarten. Martinez says the high school student has told her younger sister how lucky she is to have good food, which was not the case when the older girl was in elementary school. Teachers appreciate the healthier food as well.
“It’s always excellent,” said Lorie Wardlaw, who teaches first grade at Redwood Elementary. “I especially look forward to the teriyaki chicken and the chili and corn bread.” One way the cafeteria brings in revenue is to prepare special salads each day that teachers and other adults can purchase, she said.
Part of the district’s efforts to teach nutrition have been supported by a Harvest of the Month grant, a statewide program aimed at encouraging students to try new foods. Each month, a new produce item, typically what is in season, is featured. The food is donated by the local grocery store, Harvest Market. Featured foods have included red pepper, figs, snap peas, blood oranges, asparagus and dates. Gray and volunteers bring the fruit or vegetable of the month to the classroom in various dishes for students to try.
“Teachers are talking to students about keeping an open mind about new kinds of food,” said Mary K Champagne, principal at Redwood Elementary, a K–2 school that won a HealthierUS School Challenge award from the Department of Agriculture. The teachers, she said, tell students, “give it at try, take a little bite, it’s so good for your body.”
The featured item is also included in school meals. The red pepper, for example, was used in spaghetti, chili, salads, fajitas, sliced-up veggie dipping trays, Asian rice bowls and chow mein. Elementary students have a workbook that has activities, such as drawing the pepper, learning about what vitamins and minerals it has, and puzzles related to it. A parent newsletter includes recipes that use the produce item and information on how to store it.
Besides the daily breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack already offered at all schools, the district this year is piloting a supper program for high school students through a teen center. If it’s successful, the district will expand the program to all schools.
In addition, a grant supports the provision of fresh fruits and vegetables for a morning recess snack to Redwood Elementary. First grade teacher Wardlaw said the nutrition training and available snacks have also had an impact on what food students bring from home. Recently, a girl in Wardlaw’s class brought a doughnut to school for snack. A couple of her classmates scolded her for bringing an unhealthy snack, Wardlaw said. “We see a lot less chips and cookies than we used to. The kids are bringing fruits and vegetables too.”
Teachers are also moving away from classroom birthday parties that feature cupcakes or other unhealthy food, said principal Champagne. Parent groups are no longer selling candy to make money for the school, she added.
But many of these efforts have a cost. This year, the district has committed almost $124,000 for school meals out of its $18 million operating budget, said Superintendent Armstrong. That’s about 20 percent of the cost of providing meals. The rest comes from federal funds ($525,000), state funds ($46,000) and sales ($74,000) of food to adults and students who are not eligible for free meals.
Jennifer Owen, who has been a district school board member for the past 13 years and is currently board president, said it costs more money to provide healthy food. But, she said, the program has community support. “When we were discussing budget cuts, we didn’t have anyone coming to the board saying we should do something else with that money,” she said.
Nutrition services director Gray said that some people may think providing good food is too expensive. “But what is the cost of a sick child?” she asked. “An undernourished child does not do well in school. Our children’s health should be at the forefront.”