Skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon
Visit the Midday Edition homepage

San Diego Unified School District Serving Up Healthy Lunches

September 19, 2012 1:02 p.m.


Gary Petill, Director of Food and Nutritional Services, San Diego Unified School District

Vanessa Zajfen, specialist, Farm to School program, SDUSD

Related Story: San Diego Unified School District Serving Up Healthy Lunches


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Ask any student in San Diego unified what's for lunch, and you may be pleasantly surprised. The district hasn't a leader for years in giving students healthy food choices. This year, it's using new guidelines from the federal hunger free kids act to expand the menu. My guest, Gary Petill director. The food services at San Diego unified school district. Good to see you.

PETILL: Thanks for having us.

CAVANAUGH: And Vanessa Zajfen is farm to school coordinator. Welcome to the program.

ZAJFEN: Thanks for having us.

CAVANAUGH: So Gary, what's for lunch?

PETILL: Well, we brought you some samples here.

CAVANAUGH: You did indeed! I'm going to talk about them in just a minute or two. What is new on the menu this year?

PETILL: Well, we have some salads here. And we have some different entrees here, a teriyaki rice bowl, and a vegetarian chilly bowl which we think children are really enjoying right now.

CAVANAUGH: I know that San Diego unified has been a leader in bringing healthy meals to students. How do the new federal hunger free kids standards affect existing food choices?

PETILL: Well, they affect us very little in San Diego. But across the nation, school districts who have not had fruit and salad bars are having a challenge with this. And we're adding onto what our salad bars currently are.

CAVANAUGH: More fruit, more vegetables has been the guideline suggestion. They have been offered in San Diego unified for a long time. Do kids -- I mean, do they have to take them?

PETILL: That's the catch in this new regulation. Children have to take the fruits and vegetables now and consume them as well. So we're doing some educational components on teaching children why fruits and vegetables are healthy for them

CAVANAUGH: So in other words if you go with your tray and you don't have an apple or a recommended fruit or vegetable, it's going to be on that tray before you go back to your seat.

PETILL: Our food service worker is going to go after them with an apple and orange.

CAVANAUGH: Vanessa, you're a farm to school specialist. What do you do?

ZAJFEN: It's a program that connects K-12 students with farmers and families in our communities. So I go out, meet the farmers, and source local and organic foods from them to serve them on our salad bars, fruit bars, and some of the foods you zooey in front of you today.

CAVANAUGH: Are schools involved in the program?

ZAJFEN: One of the great things about the farm to school program, not only does it give you tasty, fresh fruits and vegetables, but there's many educational opportunities that come with that. Kids now have to eat more fruits and vegetables, and we think the local ones taste better. But also they come with a really cool story. So we hope to build a connection with our students and food in a new way that might compel them to eat those fruits and vegetables.

CAVANAUGH: So it isn't just an old piece of fruit, it's something that they've actually seen growing somewhere.

ZAJFEN: Yeah, and in fact some of our schools have gardens. We have created and dedicated a specific slot on our salad bars to foods grown in gardens at schools to serve them in the cafeteria. So kids get to see the whole process and build another connection to their food that might be -- might help them want to eat more of those fresh fruits and vegetables.

CAVANAUGH: Gary, how do you gear healthy eating to the various age levels that you have to deal with at San Diego unified?

PETILL: Well, we go back ten years where we implemented salad bars in the kindergarten through 5th grade. Now our 10th grade students are getting them. So as they progress in grades, they have had them. And as you get to middle and high school, the salad bars are even more lavishing.

CAVANAUGH: You mentioned dippers for the younger kids. What's that?

PETILL: I'm going to let Vanessa explain it. This is her baby.

ZAJFEN: We brought an example of this. One of our managers in our kitchen made the point to me, a kindergartner doesn't necessarily know how to make a salad. They might not be used to that. Will but they do know how to play with their food, and they love doing that. So why don't we try and create --

ZAJFEN: A food bar, where they can take healthy food, apple wedges, celery sticks, and couple them with healthy dips. Sun butter, hummus, yogurts. So we have this new concept that we're trying in 7-8 schools across the district to see if it's something the kids really enjoy.

PETILL: You have to get to the level of what the children are going to eat and how they're going to eat it. I don't know anyone who's gotten diabetes from eating healthy fruits and vegetables. That's what we're trying to do is teach children their longlife habits.

CAVANAUGH: As you've been mentioning, you brought in a really nice sampling of some of the lunches and some of the food that you're offering students. Maybe you can tell us a little bit more about what these really appetizing things are. What is this? Black beans and tomato. What is this?

ZAJFEN: That is actually a black bean and corn salad. That's being offered as a side.

CAVANAUGH: It looks delicious. Smells delicious.

ZAJFEN: It's great. We love T. We've got beans that are actually from -- food alliance certified beans, so that means everyone along the supply chain has been treated fairly and paid a fair wage. That's something we're very proud of. But this is a new way to get kids excited about legumes or beans as well because that's part of the new regulations. Not only do we have to serve fruits and vegetables, we have to make sure we serve all five subgroups of these vegetables as well

CAVANAUGH: That must be awfully difficult to get that into each menu that you offer.

ZAJFEN: It's challenging, but it's been fun. We've been able to come up with interesting recipes and dipper bar concepts to try and get leafy green, legumes, red orange, and other, which is a vegetable category that we have to fill in as well!

PETILL: Avocados that are locally grown, and oranges just 40 miles from here. And they're organic.

CAVANAUGH: This teriyaki chicken salad, it looks just like something you would buy somewhere. It's a good serving portion, it looks delicious. It has everything you would go somewhere and purchase at a store.

ZAJFEN: Yeah, I think Gary and I have been talking about the perception of school food is a little off nowadays.

PETILL: Yeah. And we want parents to see what we have, come to school, visit your children at lunch, see the offerings that we have. School food really is changing. And we've been making systemic changes over the last few years, and we're going to continue to do so.

CAVANAUGH: I know that we've talked before, even before these new federal guidelines came in about San Diego's focus on really changing this old idea of school lunches with mystery meat and fried everything. So what was the impetus for that change that you made years ago?

PETILL: Well, I think it's the way we eat. It's our staff, our whole team believes, and this is the way we eat. So that's why we're making these changes as well. We don't want to be told by the USDA what to do. We want to be ahead of it.

CAVANAUGH: And now high school seniors in San Diego unified, they have had healthy choices throughout their entire school life.

PETILL: Absolutely. We started them very young, and now there's salad bars in all of our schools.

CAVANAUGH: How will San Diego -- how does San Diego unified serve as a model for other cities in California? That's actually what's happening now, right?

PETILL: Interesting you say that. The California endowment has recognized us as one of the top 3 school districts in the State of California to set the example and to show other school districts that it can be done and it can be done at a cost that they can afford. We're talking about pennies here. You're talking about $2 a meal or $2.50 if you're in middle and high school. It's not much to work with.

CAVANAUGH: Now, we keep hearing statistics about the increase in childhood obesity. And just this week, the CDC came out with warnings about U.S. children eating too much salt. And they're reportedly showing more high blood pressure at tremendously early ages. Is sodium another thing you have to take any consideration?

ZAJFEN: Sodium is certainly a major focus on the new regulations. And these are very sweeping regulations that are rolling out in phases.


ZAJFEN: So this year, the most fundamental change is that you must take a fruit or vegetable. There are other nuances that you don't want to hear on the radio program. But sodium is, within a decade, we have to have significantly reduced stowedium levels in our food. Next year, there will be requirements for 100% whole grain food items. So little by little, you'll see these changes continuously. So we'll come back every year with a new spread.

PETILL: We are a really health-conscious team that is trying to make a difference.

CAVANAUGH: With all these healthy menus that kids are getting at school, and they're trying all these different foods, and seeing them in really delicious, tasty combinations, do you know if kids are actually making healthier food choices outside of school?

PETILL: Well, we're hoping. That's part of the education, I think. And the parents' education process. But Vanessa is also leading a team to do education in the classroom, which is very important. So the kids can actually go back home and tell their parents, mom, I had this today, and it's really good and healthy, and it tastes good. And we believe if you offer only healthy, children will choose healthy.

CAVANAUGH: And the district actually offers dinners for some as well, right?

PETILL: That's right. We have a supper program now that is for children who have to stay after school, their parents can't pick them up until 5:00 or 6:00 at night, and the last time they had eaten was lunch at maybe 12:00. So we are doing a bistro supper for these children. And there's actually over 13,000 children a day being served supper that are staying after school.

CAVANAUGH: Wow, that many?

PETILL: That many. And that means their parents are working, which say good thing.

ZAJFEN: We serve 155,000 meals a day. So to put that in perspective, the entire state of Vermont serves 50,000 meals a day. We serve 50,000 breakfasts in one morning.

CAVANAUGH: 61% of the students at San Diego unified schools qualify for free or reduced-price meals. What does that tell you about the kind of food choices many of the students may find at home?

ZAJFEN: Yeah, they may have limited food choices. Many of those students in fact actually eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner with us. So we need to be making sure that they are provided the healthiest options possible. We also work with many community partners to provide food to families as well as the students when they're outside of our school community. So there's backpack programs that we provide, backpacks full of food that will go with students home on the weekend. We have summer lunches and barbecues in our parks. We have food distribution sites that we person with through feeding America and San Diego food bank. So we're doing what we can outside as well to make sure food is available to those students.

PETILL: Especially when children were out of school. Parkand rec are feeding children at over 70 community and park and rec centers when children are out of school.

CAVANAUGH: And where does the fund coming from this?

PETILL: This is a USDA federally funded program, same as the lunch and supper program. Getting food to children and families who are need of eating healthy.

CAVANAUGH: And what is your budget?

PETILL: We have generally around $1 to spend on the food itself. Then you have the labor that goes into it, and then the production part of it, and serving it. So it's a very, very tight budget.

CAVANAUGH: It sounds as if the demands on San Diego food services are increasing. Is that the case as years go by? You're having to feed more kids more meals --

PETILL: With less.

PETILL: And that's why we have professionals and experts like Vanessa that go out to farmers, make a handshake deal, that Suzie's farm grows 10 acres of broccoli and squash for us. And we have dedicated, and commit to them, and we get a really good price rather than trucking fruits and vegetables across the country.

ZAJFEN: It is the mission of a lot of the farms to build a better community, build a better local food system. So they do special things for us, but with our scale and volume and our purchases, it is a beneficial move for most of the farmers that work with us. With this program is a lot of experimentation. A school district of this scale hasn't had such a progressive farm to school program before. So we have people planting food specifically for us, we have people that set aside acreage in their orchards. The and it's definitely about building part of our community as well.

CAVANAUGH: In concocting these menus, is there something that you tried and said oh, my God, this is really good?

ZAJFEN: Quite a bit, actually! Yeah, I'm pretty proud of the vegetarian chilli bowl. That's what I eat when I go to campus. But I frankly also like the sun butter and celery sticks a lot.

PETILL: We demand our team to eat the food we prepare.

CAVANAUGH: And what response have you gotten from the students?

PETILL: They really enjoy it. They don't have a lot of time to eat lunch. So they're able to take it, walk and talk and visit with their friends and eat at the same time.

CAVANAUGH: It all looks delicious. Thank you for bringing this all in and telling us about it. People want to see these menu choices, they can watch them on evening edition on KPBS television tonight at 6:30.