There's unusual lunchtime chatter at ACE Charter School in East San Jose: Students are actually raving about lunch. School lunch. And so are some teachers.
Just ask Arallana Sanchez, 11, in between her munches on a chicken barbecue sandwich and sips of organic, hormone-free milk. "At my old school everyone always drank chocolate milk because the regular milk tasted like it had expired."
Serving healthful meals at school is tougher than ever - most campuses don't even have kitchens anymore. And the federal government's low reimbursement rate - $2.68 for each poor child who qualifies for free lunch - makes it tough to buy high-quality produce. As school budgets get squeezed, many districts are going with the vendors offering the best bargain, not the best food.
But now a national push is under way to improve students' midday meal.
Schools like ACE Charter are contracting with companies that provide organic lunches. "Farm to School" programs that connect schools with local farms - like the relationship between Full Circle Farm in Sunnyvale and Santa Clara Unified School District - are popping up nationwide. And Slow Food USA is organizing "Time for Lunch," a campaign designed to "get real food in schools." The effort kicks off on Labor Day with more than 300 "Eat-ins," or community pot lucks, planned across the nation.
Advocates hope the momentum will lead to an overhaul of the Child Nutrition Act, the bill that governs the National School Lunch Program and is up for reauthorization in Congress this fall.
"It's the right time for this campaign," said Gordon Jenkins of Slow Food USA. "People are more food conscious overall. We have Michelle Obama planting a garden in the White House lawn. Now the burden is on us to show that there's a political will for this."
Most local school districts contract with large food service companies that prepare food off-site, often in other states, then freeze it and ship it to school districts. The food is then heated in microwaves or warmers. Corn dogs, pizza, and nachos - meals that are high in fats and cholesterol - are standard fare.
"Schools don't have kitchens anymore," Jenkins said. "If we really want healthy food, the food needs to be prepared at the schools."
But cost is an enormous barrier. Advocates such as Slow Food, which was founded in opposition to fast food and emphasizes eating locally grown food, are urging Congress to raise the reimbursement rate so schools can buy fresher ingredients.
On Monday, Eat-Ins are scheduled in Hollister, Mountain View, San Jose, Sunnyvale, Santa Cruz and several other locations statewide. But it's not just California: organizers are thrilled that Eat-Ins have sprouted up in Iowa, Georgia and Wisconsin.
The Sunnyvale Eat-In takes place at Full Circle Farm. At the potluck lunch, open to the public, people will discuss the farm's efforts to promote healthful eating at local schools. Kids and parents will be encouraged to write letters to President Barack Obama asking for better school lunches and sign a "Time for Lunch" petition to Congress.
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"If kids can see a green bean on the vine, and meet the farmer who grows it, versus watching it defrost or slosh out of a can, they are more apt to try it and make it a part of their diet," said Emma Mae Hoag of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers.
But as the school year gets under way, some students are already eating better.
Revolution Foods, which operates out of a vast kitchen near the Oakland airport, is rapidly expanding. It has contracts with ACE and other charter schools, the Santa Cruz City Schools and is expanding to other cities. The meals are not exotic: spaghetti and meatballs with steamed zucchini; burritos with brown rice; honey-glazed chicken with roasted potatoes and garlic braised collard greens. The food is never frozen, and it is shipped within 24 hours of preparation; there is no high fructose corn syrup or trans fats.
Vanessa Sifuentes principal of ACE Charter School in the Mayfair neighborhood of East San Jose, said "Rev Foods" makes an enormous difference in the lives of her 217 middle school students.
"Food absolutely affects their learning," said Sifuentes, who took the additional step of banning soda, candy, chips and fast food from the campus. "Usually kids eat lunch and get a sugar high; they're bouncy and can't concentrate. Then they crash from the sugar and have headaches. Now they're eating balanced meals, and they can focus. Some of our students are actually losing weight."
Revolution Foods sells high-end snack items through a partnership with Whole Foods. A percentage from the snack sales allows the company to charge school districts a sliding scale. Prices are less than $3 a meal for low-income schools - close to the federal reimbursement rate.
Kirsten Tobey, one of the company's co-founders, says there are a lot of misconceptions around what kids will and won't eat.
"Kids love fruit," said Tobey, who has a 2-year-old daughter. "But they want high quality fruit, not old fruit that's been bashed and bruised. They love food that is well prepared, and fresh. They respond to quality."
So far, the meals appear to be a hit. Though most teachers bring lunch from home, several ACE teachers say they regularly buy Revolution Food lunches, which cost $4.50 at full fare.
Dan Martinez, 11, was first in line for lunch earlier this week, and he knows the company's menu by heart.
"Yesterday we had my favorite: spaghetti," Martinez said. "Now if I eat too much junk food, I feel like I want to burst."