A Guide to USDA School Nutrition Guidelines

Guide to USDA guidelines

You probably know that your school cafeteria has to follow USDA guidelines for child nutrition. But do you know what those guidelines are or how they impact your school lunch choices?

A recent history of federal nutrition guidelines

The United States federal government has had guidelines for school nutrition programs since the 1930s. There have been many changes over the years, with the most important being the passing of the National School Lunch Act in 1946. This ensured schools would serve meals that meet the minimum nutrition requirements for children for free or at a low cost to those unable to pay. In 1966, the Child Nutrition Act was passed, recognizing the link between food and good nutrition and the ability for children to learn. To celebrate school nutrition, National School Lunch Week was established in 1962, and National School Breakfast Week was established in 1989.

Southwest salad

Grab and eat salads with chicken (or chickpeas and pesto dressing for a vegan option).

The USDA most recently updated the guidelines for the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs in 2012. The new guidelines were meant to reduce childhood obesity and increase the availability of fresh foods to low-income children. The guidelines increased fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and low-fat dairy, and decreased sodium, saturated fat, and trans fat in school meals. Schools are encouraged to provide nutrient-dense foods, which are foods that are high in nutrients and a low in calories. These foods have plenty of vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, and good fats in a low-calorie package.

Nutrient dense food list

Current USDA guidelines for school lunches

The USDA has nutritional guidelines for all Americans, but schools participating in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program have special guidelines. This is because it’s important for students to get proper nutrition so they can do well in school and become future leaders. Plus, some students qualify for free or reduced price meals, and the USDA wants to ensure that all students have access to healthy foods to grow and learn.

Here are the USDA guidelines for school lunches.

School food requirements:

  • Offer fruits and vegetables as two separate meal components
  • Offer fruit daily at breakfast and lunch
  • Offer vegetables daily at lunch, including specific vegetable subgroups weekly (dark green, orange, legumes) and a limited quantity of starchy vegetables (potatoes)
  • Half of the grains need to be whole grains
  • Offer a daily meat/meat alternate (eggs, nuts, seeds, soy) at breakfast
  • Offer fat-free (unflavored and flavored) and low-fat (unflavored only) milk

School meal program requirements:

  • Meals need to meet specific calorie ranges for each age/grade group
  • Reduce sodium gradually over a 10-year period
  • Prepare meals using ingredients that contain zero grams of trans fat per serving
  • Require students to select a fruit or a vegetable as part of the reimbursable meal
  • Use a single food-based menu planning approach
  • Use narrower age/grade groups for menu planning
  • Conduct a nutritional review of school lunches and breakfasts as part of the administrative review process

School lunch minimum requirements table

Schools also follow guidelines for calorie requirements for school meals based on grade. School breakfast and lunch menus can measure the average number of calories by the week, rather than by the day, for more flexibility and to ensure greater nutritional accountability for students who eat at school every day. These grade-based calorie ranges also ensure each student gets enough to eat to support a day of learning.

School meal calorie ranges by grade

Is it healthy to eat a school lunch?

Yes! Schools follow the USDA guidelines to ensure each meal includes fruit, vegetables, protein, whole grains, and dairy. Schools are even able to incorporate kid favorites like hamburgers and pizza into a nutritionally balanced meal when serving sizes are controlled and the meal is paired with fresh fruits and vegetables. Some foods often also have modifications to make them more nutritious, such as a whole wheat pizza dough and buns and low-fat cheese.

Ribs on a grill

Fresh grilled lean meats can be part of a balanced school lunch when prepared with low-sugar sauces and paired with fresh fruits and vegetables. Plus, students love food from the grill!

Of course, student choice plays a large role in the nutrition value of school meals. For example, a slice of pizza with a serving of juice is not as nutritious as a slice of pizza, a side salad, an orange, and milk. We encourage families to discuss nutrition at home (perhaps over a family dinner) to help students learn to make nutritionally smart choices in the school cafeteria. There’s a place for foods like pizza, hamburgers, and even desserts, but moderation is important. Additionally, when students are able to make their own choices they tend to feel in control and experience greater satisfaction about their food. This also helps reduce food waste and increase consumption of nutritious foods.

Fruit and vegetable school lunch sides

Students can choose from a variety of whole fruits, baby carrots and hummus, and vegetables for their side.

What is a healthy eating pattern?

Most of us don’t eat enough fruits, vegetables, dairy, or healthy oils, and get more grain and protein (up to twice as much!) than we need. Added to this, most Americans, including children and teens, eat too much added sugar, saturated fat, and sodium, and too many calories overall. These habits can lead to a number of chronic diseases (such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity) that shorten life spans. Everyone, especially growing students, should do their best to follow a healthy eating pattern.

A healthy eating pattern includes:

  • ​A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups: dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils

A healthy eating pattern limits:

  • ​Saturated and trans fats
  • Added sugars
  • Sodium

A healthy eating pattern can be achieved by eating more variety, both in each food group and among all food groups. For example, students can fill up on the fresh salad bar to get their recommended fruits and vegetables and try something new. At home, replace a hamburger a couple times a week with a bean or seafood dish and add a colorful salad to dinner. This helps you add more nutrient dense foods that keep you full and provide all the nutrients you need while still tasting great. The best part is you don’t have to stop eating your favorite unhealthy foods – just eat them less frequently, or have smaller portions and fill up with a nutrient-dense salad or vegetable side dish.

School salad bar

A fresh salad bar with vegetables and beans gives students the option to build their own healthy meals.

It’s also good to remember that taste buds change, so just because you didn’t like a fruit or vegetable when you were younger doesn’t mean you won’t like it now. Preparing a fruit or vegetable in a new and interesting way can greatly improve its taste. For example, many people don’t like cruciferous vegetables like broccoli or Brussels sprouts when they’re young, but learn to love it by trying a new preparation with an open mind. Next time you go through the school salad bar, try adding chickpeas, bell peppers, or purple cabbage and see how your taste buds may have grown.


Event Recap: Taste of Cafe Agua Dulce at Chula Vista High School

Event Recap: Taste of Cafe Agua Dulce

Chula Vista High School students got a treat Monday during finals week: a free taste test! Held in a high traffic location on the Senior Lawn, the Taste of Cafe Agua Dulce taste test featured five new items students might see on the menu for breakfast and lunch next year. The roughly 200 students who participated had the opportunity to weigh in on the new items, helping shape what will actually be on the menu.

Greek salad samples Cafe Agua Dulce

Homemade tzatziki dressing, cucumbers, tomatoes, and feta cheese on the Greek salad.

The new menu items included two breakfast items and three lunch items:

  • Egg, turkey sausage, and cheese whole grain Tornado
  • Egg and cheese whole grain taquito
  • Greek salad with homemade tzatziki dressing
  • Fair style turkey leg
  • Homemade tuna melt sandwich

All of the menu items follow federal nutritional guidelines for saturated fat and sodium limits but are modified to be appealing to students. For example, the Tornado uses a whole grain flour tortilla and low-fat cheese, and the tuna melt uses whole grain bread and relies on mustard and other spices to enhance the flavor. Sweetwater sources fish from Catalina Offshore Products, purveyor of local, fresh fish around San Diego, further adding to the appeal of the tuna melt.

Tornado samples at Cafe Agua Dulce

The Tornado is egg, turkey sausage, and cheese wrapped in a whole grain flour tortilla covered in spices.

Most of the new items will be in the regular rotation, but at least one will be offered a la carte: the fair style turkey leg. Though today students got sample cups with turkey leg meat, the actual leg is a hefty size and will be finished on the grill. After spotting what the turkey legs will look like, two Juniors commented on how expensive they are at the fair and that they are excited to be able to order one at school for much less.

Turkey leg at Cafe Agua Dulce

Much more than bite-sized: full turkey legs will be added to the a la carte lunch menu.

About 75 students filled out a survey after trying the samples, ranking each item on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being best). However, it was easy to tell which items were popular based on how quickly staff had to replace the samples! The Tornados were overwhelmingly the favorite breakfast item and eventually ran out, and Nutrition Services employees were constantly putting out extra tuna melt and turkey leg samples.

Tuna melt samples at Cafe Agua Dulce

The tuna melt with whole grain bread, pepper jack cheese, and homemade tuna salad was a hit.

Students chatted about the items while they snacked, giving the Nutrition Services team an early peek into what they liked and what they didn’t like. The Greek salad, with cucumbers, tomatoes, feta cheese, and a homemade tzatziki dressing, was a hit among both students and staff members, who are all interested in more salad variety. Next year, the salad will be served with either chicken or falafel for a complete meal. One staff member even asked for the tuna melt recipe, saying she planned to recreate it at home. Quite the compliment!

The school-wide taste test was piloted by Alberto Apalategui’s Power Thinking class a couple of weeks ago. Paired with a nutrition lesson my Registered Dietitian Devon Walker, the class learned more about the importance of nutrition and also how to critique food. Many of these same students came for Taste of Cafe Agua Dulce, eager to try even more potential new menu items and give their voices greater reach.

Taste of Cafe Agua Dulce was partially inspired by the need to create more awareness for the district’s summer meals program. Seamless Summer is a USDA program providing free meals to all children 18 years of age and under. SUHSD meal sites will be at 7 middle schools, 7 high schools, and the Westfield Plaza Bonita Mall. Anyone 18 and under can come to these locations for fresh salads, sandwiches, grill items (ribs, burgers, and nachos), and a variety of sides from June 11 to June 29.

Additionally, the district is hard at work this summer developing and perfecting new recipes for next year. These recipes will follow federal guidelines for nutrition, including sodium and saturated fat reductions, but will also take into account student opinions. The surveys help us know what students like about recipes and what can be improved so more students (and staff) are eager to eat a healthy and delicious school lunch. Be sure to visit us next year to see the changes we’re making!


Celebrating our School Lunch Heroes!

When was the last time you thanked your school lunch staff?

When you’re hungry, it’s hard to focus on class assignments or tests. The same is true if your lunch was full of saturated fat and sodium. For all students to learn and succeed in school, they need healthy and nutritious meals. For some students, school lunches are their only reliable meals. School lunch staff have an important job, collectively serving over 5 billion school lunches every year nationwide.

School nutrition staff are extra special because they are often the only staff that has the chance to interact with every student every day. This accessibility gives them more insight into the student population than almost anyone else on campus. At Sweetwater Union HSD, all school nutrition staff are heroes every day! Our nutrition staff have a tough job of preparing healthy meals for hundreds of students at each school every day, following strict nutrition guidelines, and making meals taste good.

“I want to thank and recognize all of Nutrition Services heroes for the work they do every day,” says Eric Span, Director of Nutrition Services. “It’s always exciting when I see them in action providing nutritious healthy meals to our students. Thank you all for the care and dedication you provide to our Sweetwater  Family.”

School Lunch Hero Day is celebrated every year on the first Friday in May (that’s today, May 4th!). To celebrate, we’re sharing the stories of four extra-special lunch heroes: Cecilia Diaz De Leon at Sweetwater Union High School, Yesica Zavala at Mar Vista Academy, Nancy Guzman at San Ysidro High, and Stephanie Ruiz at Granger Junior High.

Stephanie Ruiz: Granger Junior High Kitchen Supervisor

Stephanie Ruiz School Lunch Hero

Stephanie Ruiz loves her time with the students and working on new recipes.

Stephanie has been at Granger Junior High for two and a half years, but she’s been with Sweetwater Union HSD for five years. She was a substitute kitchen supervisor for one year, and was hired permanently a little over two years ago.“My anniversary day is St. Patrick’s Day, so it’s easy to remember,” she says with a smile. “For most holidays we try to decorate or put a few fun things out for the students. Obviously Christmas is the big one, but we put up green flowers and shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day.”

As a kitchen supervisor, Stephanie is responsible for ordering and menu planning. But she also serves early breakfast at Granger, before school starts. That’s her favorite part of the day.

“I get to talk to my regular students and try to encourage them to eat something that’s new on the lunch menu,” she says. “I actually engage with the students and they know who I am, so it’s fun.”

Sometimes Stephanie will sample new items that she wants to try adding to the menu. One of her favorite things is trying new recipes and seeing how she can improve existing items. With a mainly vegan family, she’s also a big supporter of the new plant-based menu items.

In fact, her favorite school lunch is the falafel wrap, which is falafel, cucumbers, and tomatoes with a hummus spread wrapped in a tortilla. “Every so often we sample it out and most of the students who try it like it. But it’s hard to compete with burgers and pizza,” she says.

Still, she tries to encourage students to eat more fruits and vegetables. “If students come in tired I tell them to have an apple, because it’s natural energy. You feel better overall when you eat more fruits and vegetables,” she says. Her rule at home is to try a food before deciding you don’t like it, something she encourages students to model.

“You don’t have to be vegan to eat vegan food sometimes,” says Stephanie. “Everyone should try to explore new foods.”

Cecilia Diaz De Leon: Sweetwater High School Kitchen Supervisor

Cecilia Diaz De Leon School Lunch Hero

Cecilia Diaz De Leon serves up breakfast to a line of hungry students at Sweetwater High School.

Cecilia has been at Sweetwater High School for nine months, but she’s been Nutrition Services Supervisor for three years. It’s no surprise that her favorite part of the day is serving breakfast and lunch to the students at Sweetwater High.

Cecilia wants to make sure every eligible student can get a free or reduced lunch. She loves helping her students qualify so more of them can enjoy a healthy and delicious meal.

“As soon as a student lunch application arrives on my desk I sent it to the Nutrition Services Department for processing,” she says. “I have a good line of communication with school administrators and registers. Together we make sure every student submits a complete application for free lunch.”

Cecilia loves to eat the Tuscan chicken salad because she helps make the dressing in the kitchen every day. She tries to encourage wellness and nutrition among students by convincing them to try new menu items.

“I explain the components of new menu items to them,” she says. “That way some of them will want to try them out.”

Yesica Zavala: Mar Vista Academy Kitchen Supervisor

Yesica Zavala School Lunch Hero

Yesica believes her role is as a mentor in addition to nutrition provider.

Yesica has been at Mar Vista Academy for almost three years. She started as Acting Assistant II in August of 2015, and was promoted to Kitchen Supervisor a year later. She’s been in this role ever since.

She loves watching the students make their lunch choices. “It’s so wonderful to see them choosing the items we prepared with enthusiasm and love,” she says. “We’re here to serve them. We work for them. We understand how important it is to satisfy hunger with a full stomach. It makes me happy to see them taking a complete meal because we know we’re feeding them in a responsible way.”

Seeing very few leftovers at the end of the day tells her she’s doing her job well. Even better, though, is the happy face of a student telling her the food was delicious.

“It means our effort was worth it,” she says. “It reflects all my time planning, organizing, and preparing the food. We put our hearts into it and season with love.”

It’s no surprise that Yesica feels the same way about the students as many teachers.  “They’re like our children, and we want the best for our kids” she says. “We’re worried when they don’t eat, and when they’re happy after a meal it’s a great satisfaction.” It’s said that the way to the heart is through the stomach, and Yesica believes this.

When it’s time for her to eat, it’s difficult to choose. Some days Yesica will grab a BBQ pork flatbread, others it’s the Agua Dulce ceviche, or the BBQ jerk chicken with black beans.

“All of these are delicious. They’re not just ingredients we pull from the freezer – we prepare all lunches fresh and make sure they taste good, smell good, and look good. But if I had to choose only one, I’d choose the Tuscan chicken salad. I love the dressing, which we prepare here in our kitchen.”

As kitchen supervisor, Yesica encourages students to try something new.

“When we first started making hummus, some of them didn’t know what it was made of and they were afraid to ask in front of their friends,” says Yesica. “We put out a sample table and offered the hummus with baby carrots, celery sticks, and cucumbers and explained how we make it in the kitchen. They liked it!”

She also encourages students to take more fruit by using friendly, uncomplicated words to explain that fruit is important for healthy living. Another tactic is to offer choices and just keep trying.

“We’ll show students they have options, and say, ‘what would you prefer to take? Apples, oranges, bananas, or spicy lime cucumbers that are delicious!’” Yesica says. “If they say they don’t want any, we’ll try something else, like ‘did you try putting lettuce on your burger? It tastes really good!’” Yesica does all this with a natural smile.

Yesica loves what she does. Seeing the students grow day by day is a wonderful reminder that she and her staff are part of their development. She knows her job goes beyond nutrition: they are also mentors.

“You never know when a student might need a smile from us to ease their day,” she says. “That’s something we can offer them in addition to fruits and vegetables.”

Nancy Guzman: San Ysidro High Kitchen Supervisor

Nancy Guzman School Lunch Hero

Nancy knows taste is important for her students.

Nancy has been a kitchen supervisor for five years, four of those at San Ysidro High School. She works hard to make sure all students have healthy and nutritious meals, so seeing that the students are content with their choices makes her happy.

“I enjoy helping students and parents with any nutrition department needs and questions,” Nancy says. But her favorite? “The best part of my job is working alongside my staff and creating a harmonious environment in the cafeteria.”

Her favorite dish is the turkey and mashed potato bowl. “It tastes like Thanksgiving dinner in a bowl!” says Nancy. “It has all the essentials of a Thanksgiving dinner: turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn and cheese.” Try it next time and let her know what you think!

Nancy also encourages wellness and nutrition among her students. She makes sure the daily vegan and vegetarian options, which are healthier alternatives to more traditional lunches, are available and encourages students to try them. But, of course, taste is always most important for the students.

“In the kitchen we emphasize making our meals consistently delicious,” she says. “This way the students will be returning customers.” Seeing regulars and new faces tells her she’s on the right track.

“Working as a kitchen supervisor has given me the opportunity to nourish the students so they are capable of learning and reaching their goals,” she says. This is no small task, but Nancy is up for the job.

These lovely lunch ladies, and all school nutrition staff in Sweetwater Union HSD, serve millions of lunches every year to our students. Since only last July, 3,112,521 meals have been served at SUHSD schools. We encourage everyone – students, teachers, and staff – to show their appreciation for the nutrition team today. Make a card, write a poem, or sign a poster with your class. Even a thank you and a smile can go a long way, today and every day!


Cook Club: Granger Junior’s Newest Club

Cook Club at Granger Junior High

Cooking, for many junior high students, often means adding hot water to a cup of noodles. But Cook Club members at Granger Junior High are learning how to cook for real. So far the students have whipped up crepes, fried rice, Belgian waffles, and chocolate fondue complete with sliced fruit and marshmallows. Today’s dish is a little more complicated: pasta carbonara.

“If you order pasta carbonara in a restaurant it can cost anywhere from $10 to $20 for a plate,” says Antonio Gutierrez, the club’s advisor. “But you can get all of the ingredients to make it for a family of four for under $10.”

Pasta carbonara ingredients

Pasta, bacon, egg, Asiago cheese, and optional cherry tomatoes are the ingredients for pasta carbonara.

Cook Club is only a few months old but it already has over two dozen members. The club’s president, Isaias, learned about the different clubs Granger Junior had to offer while at his previous school.

“But when I came here, nothing really fit,” he said. “What I wanted was a cooking club.”

Isaias was not alone. He and other students approached a few teachers to support them. When Mr. Gutierrez found out about their efforts he was just as excited as the students. “I teach science and AVID, but one of my passions is teaching culinary arts,” he says.

Cook Club officers lead the class

Cook Club Vice President Alenna and President Isaias lead the lesson on pasta carbonara.

In fact, Mr. Gutierrez once auditioned for the Food Network and still loves hosting dinner parties with his wife. Now, Mr. Gutierrez is an educator by day, and a Personal Chef hosting limited-engagement pop-up restaurants at night. Despite his self-taught culinary skills, Cook Club is entirely student driven. Not only did Isaias and the other officers take the lead on establishing the club, but they also lead the lessons, direct other students, and take time before and after the club to prep and clean.

“It took a lot of steps to start Cook Club,” Isaias says. He started the process in September 2017, but the club didn’t have its first meeting until January 2018. During that period he and other students registered the club with ASB and raised funds to buy ingredients and equipment. It takes a lot of planning for a couple dozen chefs-in-training to cook at the same time!

Granger Junior Cook Club

Students break into groups and share cooking responsibilities.

The weekly menu is decided in a vote at lunch on Tuesdays in Mr. Gutierrez’s classroom. The challenge is finding recipes that don’t have too many steps (Cook Club is only an hour long) and that can be made using electric hot plates. Without an oven, some recipes that students want to make are out of reach, such as cakes and brownies.

“We try to find recipes that use the fewest number of ingredients to make it more doable in the classroom,” Mr. Gutierrez says. He also tries to steer the club towards healthier options. “I’d love to try making salsas.”

Pasta Carbonara day at Cook Club

Alana and Ariatna stir the pasta while the bacon cooks. Their other ingredients are already prepped and ready.

Using few ingredients can also help the students realize how achievable cooking is. “My goal is to demystify cooking so they’ll try it at home,” he says. “Food cooked at home is so much healthier.”

Granger Cook Club meets every Thursday at 3:15pm. The first students to arrive help sanitize the tables. For the pasta carbonara, they set up cook stations with hot plates, pans, and tongs, and prep stations with Asiago cheese, eggs, bacon, and tomatoes. Mr. Gutierrez constantly reminds students to wash their hands and reviews how to safely handle equipment. Because they’ll be handling uncooked bacon, everyone gets a pair of gloves.

Cook Club members chop bacon

Cook Club members don plastic gloves to handle bacon.

“We can use uncooked bacon because it’s salt cured,” says Mr. Gutierrez. “But other uncooked meats are off the table in this setting.”

Pasta carbonara is a little different than other pasta dishes because it uses a mix of egg and Asiago cheese as the sauce. Al dente pasta is finished in the pan with the bacon (and optional cherry tomatoes), and the egg and cheese mixture is stirred in at the end to create a sauce-like coating. “This makes it lighter than other pasta dishes, like fettuccine Alfredo,” Mr. Gutierrez says.

Cook Club students stir the egg

Lindsey and Alenna coat their pasta, bacon, and cherry tomatoes in a mixture of egg and Asiago cheese to create a light sauce.

After a demonstration of techniques, students break up into groups and prep their ingredients: chop bacon, slice tomatoes, shred cheese, and crack an egg. One student scrambles the egg with cheese, while another cooks the bacon and a third keeps an eye on the pasta. Often the fourth group member takes pictures or calls out reminders.

“Stir! Stir! Stir! Don’t forget to shake!”

Cook Club photos

Having lots of group members means someone is always available to take photos.

Mr. Gutierrez demonstrates how to twirl the pasta in the pan and slide it onto the plate. Students delicately sprinkle shredded Asiago cheese for garnish and add a pinch of salt and pepper. “Make sure you get a photo of the cheese!” one student tells her group-mate.

At last, the reward for their labor is enjoying their pasta. The verdict?

Tasting pasta carbonara at Cook Club

Aracely and Tayshawn are about to have the first taste of their pasta carbonara.

“Wow, this is delicious!” A surprised Aracely says after her first taste. Her partner Tayshawn contemplates a few bites before deciding, “I like it.” Neither have had pasta carbonara before, and both preferred it with the tomatoes. “It’s sweeter,” says Aracely.

Sandy has had shrimp scampi before but now wants to make pasta carbonara at home. “This is better!” she says.

Plating lessons in Cook Club

Sandy and her teammates are about to have their first taste (after careful plating, garnishing, and Instagramming!)

Hopefully, Cook Club will result in more Granger Junior High students cooking for themselves and their families. Realizing how delicious meals can be with just a few simple ingredients can give students the courage to try new things and experiment with their own recipes. These basic skills will benefit them through high school, college, and the rest of their lives.

Pasta Carbonara

Pasta, bacon, and cherry tomatoes are coated in an egg and Asiago cheese “sauce” for pasta carbonara.

Want to try the same recipe that Granger Junior Cook Club used? Here’s a link.


Advocating Sustainability at Montgomery Middle School

Advocating sustainability at Montgomery Middle School

The plastic problem is well known. People of all ages are more aware of their impact on the planet’s limited resources. Unfortunately, sustainable practices aren’t yet mainstream. Take water: the average American uses 167 plastic bottles every year, but 77% of those end up in landfills or the ocean.

The Garden Club students at Montgomery Middle School chat about this while in the garden a few days before Earth Day.

“I’d like more people to take care of the Earth,” says Yasmine, a 7th grader. Fellow club member Daisy, also in 7th grade, agrees. “People can use more reusable bags instead of plastic,” she says. “We have lots of reusable bags at home. When we do get plastic bags we reuse them.”

Student with a strawberry

Daisy holds up a strawberry that she helped plant in the school’s garden.

Yasmine, Daisy, and the other club members also understand the value of water. Today the soil is still damp from rain, but the students describe how a lack of water affected their harvests last year. The strawberries withered once they stopped watering the plants, a lesson any first-time gardener must learn.

When they have successful harvests, the students are allowed to bring produce home. “I always take home lettuce because I like making salads,” says Daisy. Celeste, an 8th grader, usually takes home zucchini and potatoes but says, “yesterday I took home a huge onion!”

Student with zucchini plant

Celeste shows off the thriving zucchini plant – her favorite!

Young people are perhaps more motivated to find sustainable solutions to modern environmental issues. Earth Day, which is this Sunday (April 22), is a powerful reminder that small changes can make a big difference. Helping to spread this message on campus is Gulshan Kumar of Path Water. Sold in Cafe Agua Dulce (and convenience stores statewide), Path Water is a California company that’s turning to aluminum as a plastic alternative.

“We want this generation to think differently about water,” says Kumar. “We want to make it easier to switch from single-use plastic bottles to reusable aluminum.”

Path Water event at Montgomery Middle School

Gulshan Kumar of Path Water greets students at lunch and talks about the benefits of drinking water.

Why aluminum? The big benefit is that aluminum water bottles are reusable (it’s not recommended to reuse disposable plastic water bottles). They’re highly recyclable, using five times less energy to recycle than plastic. Aluminum also does not leach chemicals into the water, which can happen with plastic. The cherry on top is that aluminum preserves the water temperature, keeping water cool for hours.

Reusable water bottles have another benefit that makes Director of Nutrition Services, Eric Span, happy: water is the healthiest drink. “We want water to be the first drink choice for students,” says Span. “By promoting water as the first choice drink, students can stay hydrated and may avoid sugary, high-calorie drinks that contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic.”

Water is also the more sustainable option. Federal nutrition guidelines require schools to provide milk to students, which some students don’t want. This can lead to wasted milk, packaging, and money. Many schools are implementing hydration stations as part of waste reduction initiatives, but not all students have reusable water bottles. Aluminum bottles give students a healthier drink choice at a low cost and help schools save money.

Student holding strawberry

Shawn loves to take strawberries home. They’re best when fresh picked!

Small actions, like switching to a reusable water bottle, can have a huge impact on sustainability. Remember the statistic that the average American uses 167 single-use plastic water bottles each year? Path Water co-founder and CEO Shadi Bakour says, “If we can reduce that number to 1 per month, it would be a massive reduction in plastic waste.”

Reusable water bottles can also have an impact on health. People largely turn to plastic bottles out of convenience, but there’s a misconception that bottled water is healthier. In reality, the big water brands use filtered municipal water – the same you get from your tap. Having a reusable water bottle on hand both encourages students to choose water first.

Student with mint

Ailaini helps pick and rinse fresh mint to infuse with their water samples.

Garden Club students got a sneak peek, er, taste, of Path Water. Eyeing the abundant crop of mint in the garden, Eric Span suggested the students add a few leaves to their water for an infused flavor. The students crush the leaves in their fingers, drop them in, and take a sip.

Aluminum seems to be a win for sustainability, health, and convenience, but its adoption may come down to appearance. “Path Water bottles look cool, and that makes kids want to use them,” says Kumar. “But there’s so much more behind it. A person with a reusable bottle is making a commitment to live a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle.” They’re helping take care of the planet – even if they don’t realize it.


Clean Food At School: How Sweetwater Is Changing The Game

by Larisa Casillas

Gone are the days of frozen and reheated, out-of-the-box cafeteria food with a high degree of processed ingredients.

As more and more schools districts switch to nutrient-dense and fresher food choices for their students, Sweetwater Union High School District – the second largest secondary school district in California – has positioned itself as a nutrition innovator through a collaborative effort by many nutrition-forward individuals.

The emphasis for the district today is on clean label foods: those containing natural, familiar, simple ingredients that are easy to recognize, understand, and pronounce, with no artificial ingredients or synthetic chemicals.

On the district’s menus, you’ll find entrees and side dishes like fresh fruits and vegetables, confetti rice, almond biscuits, freshly prepared hummus, and chicken edamame – all of which are served to the community’s 42,000 students.

Clean foods are the mandated priority for vendors from the Sweetwater Union HSD Nutrition Services department.

And although perennial favorites like pizza are still on the menu, the difference now is in how the ingredients are sourced.

“The cleaner the better”, says Amber McCelland of Waypoint Foods, a distributor, who has been working with Sweetwater Union for a little over three years.

McClelland works with many other districts in the state, and says some are more progressive than others. “Things have changed a lot,” she says.

As a food broker, she helps to source what the district wants from different vendors and bring the menu to fruition according to the guidelines that the district sets.

She says Sweetwater Union High School District is moving toward clean labels and speed scratch cooking methods for fresher food, and remembers the stark difference from the way cafeteria food was when she was in school in the 90s.

McClelland says a lot of this had to do with Michelle Obama’s campaign Let’s Move!

Let’s Move! was able to influence the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2012 to establish new rules that were meant to improve the nutritional quality of the meals served at public schools nationwide.

It was the first major revision to school meal standards in 15 years.

“Many children consume at least half of their meals at school, and for many children, food served at school may be the only food they regularly eat,” the campaign emphasizes on their website.

Suddenly sodium quantity mattered, there were whole grain requirements, and calorie counts.

No more soda, either.

But another player in this nutrition shift that has taken place at Sweetwater High School District is Eric Span, the district’s Nutrition Services Director, who came with a culinary background 6 years ago.

He credits this culinary background for his ability to judge the quality of food.

Sweetwater is a leader in new approaches to sourcing foods in San Diego County and across the country.

Span remembers that when he came aboard, he took a look at the menu and saw ingredients like soy, vegetable protein and mechanically separated meat.

Also, the food that was tray-to-oven, oven-to-plate.

“I wouldn’t want to eat that or feed it to my own kids.” he says.

He now asks other staff members, ‘Is this something you would serve to your own kids’?

Span says the biggest roadblock to achieving this healthier menu was retraining the staff who at first had concerns about handling raw chicken or manually preparing more of the food themselves.

“We want to be able to shred our own pork,” he says.

But with a little push they were able to re-train the staff on a large scale, teaching them safety procedures and quick scratch cooking methods.

He knew it could be done.

He’s also been able to bring on other staff members who have backgrounds in cake design, are former chefs, and even registered dieticians.

He notes that it’s the same budget they’re working with, the only difference is how they move the dollars around.

Sweetwater Union High School District participates in an opportunity bid buy program, where they bid on produce or cuts of meat that are surplus stock from chain restaurants. This allows them to provide more choices and high-quality ingredients for good prices.

He estimates some 16,000 lunches are served daily.

Recently, Span has been actively involving students from across the district, asking them what they want. One surprising answer that has been more prevalent lately: more vegan options.

There are vegetarian options on the menu now, but Span says he’s always looking to give the kids more choices.

“You have to be innovative, because you don’t want them to throw food away,” he says.

“A lot of times it’s introducing them to fruits and vegetables,” and he notes that he had never tried a persimmon until he did so in one of the school lunches.

Span says their long-term goal is to go micro-local.

The district would like to be able to grow and produce the majority of the food they use, which can be grown on the district’s own school campuses.

The district has already secured a USDA farm planning grant to launch a sustainable garden at Southwest High School, and they’re looking into more grant opportunities.

“We are innovative,” Span says, “but I don’t want to downplay the movement that’s happening with school food in our country. As the largest secondary school district in California, we’re uniquely positioned to impact the community.”


Meet Maria Galleher: Chula Vista High School Teacher of the Year and Wellness Champion

Maria Galleher Teacher of the Year and Wellness Champion

Most mornings, Maria Galleher and a couple dozen students can be found in the garden at Chula Vista High School. She gently calls out instructions to groups of students, though this late in the school year most of them don’t need direction. Everyone has a job in the gardening class: some use shovels to turn the compost while others clean tools and buckets, wash the day’s harvest, and rake the soil.

CVHS students working the garden box

Students in the CVHS garden class tend to a raised planter growing cilantro and cabbage.

A great variety of edible plants thrive in the organic garden, from kale and rainbow chard to green and red lettuce to an overflowing herb area. With so much flourishing greens, it’s surprising to learn that the garden was a patch of mud and dirt only two years ago. At first the dirt couldn’t keep anything alive, and it took a labor of love to turn the dirt into the productive garden it is today. But Mrs. Galleher was not without help: every day her students worked the dirt, learning while doing to turn it into healthy soil. She also enlisted help from outside organizations to donate supplies and provide science-based lessons in gardening.

Chula Vista High School garden boxes

Companion planting helps the garden at CVHS thrive.

Teacher of the Year

It was these efforts that landed Mrs. Galleher the Teacher of the Year award for Chula Vista High School. She was humbled to receive the award in light of the many wonderful teachers at Chula Vista High School, but she’s proud to represent a school that addresses the needs of the whole child. “It’s incredible how supportive the teachers and administration have been,” she says. “Teachers use the garden’s outdoor classroom space and several have donated money for crops or donated their old gardening tools.”

CVHS garden cooking demo

CVHS gardening students learn about growing their food.

Mrs. Galleher also represents her students. “They’ve made incredible changes to the overall beauty of the campus,” she says. Mrs. Galleher uses the garden to teach her students about symbiotic relationships and organic pest control. “Everything is organic, which means there are no pesticides here,” she says. Planting companion species together, such as tomato and basil, reduces the need for pesticides. When pests do become a problem, natural solutions are introduced. Ladybugs control aphids, native birds gobble up tomato hornworms, and spiders eat up just about everything else. Students also lend a hand by washing aphids and whiteflies off leaves with water and a drop of peppermint soap and embark on worm gathering expeditions.

Ladybugs on sunflower at Chula Vista High School

Ladybugs and other beneficial insects provide natural pest control at the CVHS student garden.

The garden is as sustainable as possible, which helps reduce costs. “Nothing goes to waste, right?” Mrs. Galleher prompts her students as they tend the garden. Discards from the harvest, including brown leaves, garlic ends, and citrus peels, are added to the compost. A bucket under the standalone sink collects water from washing the produce, which is then given right back to the plants.

Each student is responsible for nurturing the plants, and the pride they have in their results is obvious. Who knew high school students would get so excited to pull up a beet? Mrs. Galleher is especially proud when her students share their bounty with other teachers, saying, “It strengthens the bond between them and fosters a mutually respectful relationship.”

CVHS students with cilantro

Gardening students proudly pose with their day’s harvest – fresh cilantro!

Food as a vehicle for learning and healing

“Does anyone want to make a smoothie?” Mrs. Galleher asks. A chorus of enthusiastic “yeah!”s erupts, and students rush to gather around the blender. They add freshly picked cilantro to a mix of spinach, frozen pineapple, and a big squeeze of lemon and take turns passing around sample sized smoothie tastes.

CVHS students saute veggies

The gardening class often culminates in a healthy snack to reward students with the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor.

On a griddle in room #807, Mrs. Galleher helps a few students sauté handfuls of chopped rainbow chard with olive oil, garlic, onion, and a sprinkle of sea salt, fresh cracked pepper, and oregano. The students, some of whom had never even heard of chard before this class, crowd around the griddle to scoop the sauté onto tortilla chips. Many take seconds and thirds until there’s none left.

Learning beyond the classroom

The students are learning more than how to take care of a garden, they’re also discovering more about what they eat. Even better, they’re passing this information on to their families, changing eating habits at home. One student has stopped eating food with high fructose corn syrup as the first ingredient, while another encouraged her whole family to cut back on soda. Overall, students and their families are eating more fruits and vegetables and less junk after learning what goes into their food. They’re even empowered to bring some of the produce home to make vibrant salads for their families, taking a greater role in their individual and family health.

CVHS students chop chard

Students chop rainbow chard from the garden, a food some had never tried before.

The benefits of the garden extend beyond Mrs. Galleher’s classroom. Students passing by the garden on their way to class pluck ripe cherry tomatoes for an on-the-go bite. “They’re better than candy,” she says. She even shared a rainbow chard and queso taco with a teacher who had never tried chard before and was hesitant. When she convinced him, he liked it! Mrs. Galleher hopes that, “the next time he goes grocery shopping he won’t be intimidated by new foods.” Changing adult and student minds about food is a source of pride for Mrs. Galleher.

Purple tomatoes at Chula Vista High School garden

Students passing through the garden pluck ripe tomatoes from the vine to pop in their mouths.

Even though the Chula Vista High School garden is flourishing, Mrs. Galleher says this is only the first step. Eventually she wants the garden to be able to supply a year-round fresh, organic salad bar for the school cafeteria. Ideally, she’ll be able to supply fresh produce for more than just Chula Vista High School. Sweetwater Union HSD already purchases food from schools in the district, including eggs from the chicken farm at Sweetwater High School. Could Mrs. Galleher’s garden be the next student-run farm to supply the district with fresh food? There are plans in the works to expand the garden, transforming other areas of unproductive dirt into an orchard, a pollinator garden, and (fingers crossed) a chicken farm. If Mrs. Galleher and her students continue to see this level of success, all of Sweetwater Union HSD students might be enjoying a CVHS-grown salad bar.

By Lindsay Mineo


Vegan & Vegetarian Options Grow at Sweetwater Union HSD

Vegan Vegetarian Options Grow

Sweetwater Union High School District is a leader in San Diego County for offering fresh, tasty, clean-label foods that defy the decades-long stereotypes of school food. The meals are more creative, using locally-sourced ingredients and meeting federal nutritional regulations. The menu is expanding in many ways, now offering more vegetarian and vegan menu items.

Sweetwater Union schools have offered vegetarian and vegan options for years, but they often felt like an afterthought. This might be because they were in many other areas. Federal regulations require each meal to have a certain amount of protein, so most of the vegetarian meals were packed with beans and cheese.

Nutrition Services is now getting more creative and focused on building vegetarian and vegan options. The goal: menu items that everyone, even the teachers and the meat-eaters, will want to eat.

Vegan lunch box

A vegan lunch box with high protein hummus and walnuts and fresh cut cucumbers.

There were two main motivations for the shift to develop more vegetarian menu items. The first was the students themselves. There have always been vegetarian students at Sweetwater Union schools, but they want meals that aren’t so reliant on dairy.

“Sweetwater Union wants to be forward thinking and responsive about the meals we provide to students, so we’re happy to accommodate their needs,” says Eric Span, Director of Nutrition Services. This request follows USDA MyPlate recommendations for protein sources that are naturally low in fat.

Soon after, the vegan students came forward, asking for options that meet their needs, too. For Span, vegetarian and vegan student voices matter as much as everyone else’s. Just like schools provide equal access to fresh produce, schools should also provide equal access to alternative foods.

Vegetarian pita sandwich

Vegan pita bread sandwiches use hummus as a spread and are stuffed with filling vegetables.

“We want our cafeterias to be welcoming and inclusive to all students, which is why we’re working on these new vegetarian and vegan options for breakfast and lunch,” says Span. “We’re working to fit these items into how we see food in general. By doing a little thinking outside the box, we can have menu items that meet federal nutrition requirements, are vegan, and taste great. That’s really what the students care about. If the food tastes good they’ll eat it.”

The second motivation was a school nutrition conference last year. There, Span met Lauren Pitts, from the Humane Society of the United States. Their free culinary training programs help school kitchen managers adopt more plant-based foods. One such training will introduce innovative plant-based menu items at Otay Ranch High School. The training will also help make these items more appealing to students.

School nutrition training for vegan items

Lauren Pitts runs a training with kitchen managers. They made a delicious vegan nacho cheese sauce using carrots, potatoes, and nutritional yeast.

Based on this training, Lauren and the nutrition services team are working together to test new items with students. “If the meat eaters also like these choices we’ll be in a really good spot,” says Span. Taste is key when it comes to making smart choices for school lunch.

SUSHD is also piloting The Smarter Lunchrooms Movement at Montgomery High School and Eastlake High School. This program uses strategies from marketing, psychology, and economics to help schools create an environment that makes choosing healthy food easy. These solutions also lead to reduced food waste, and increased school lunch participation, student satisfaction, and nutrient-rich food consumption.

Banana walnut yogurt

This high protein banana walnut yogurt looks like something a coffee shop would serve!

Variety is the spice of life for vegetarian and vegan menu options

Students already have a vegan entree option for breakfast and lunch every day. Some days this means a falafel wrap, other days it’s a Southwest salad. Additionally, all the sides are vegetarian, and most are vegan. Even with all the delicious options, the district is getting requests for more variety. Answering them is the first step in a long-term strategy for a more inclusive nutrition program at Sweetwater Union.

To add more variety, cafeterias are testing out new flavor profiles from around the world. Food suppliers for Sweetwater Union cafeterias already provide vegetarian and vegan items. Even the schools themselves are providing items from their blossoming school gardens. A shining example is Southwest High School’s chicken farm, which provides fresh eggs for the cafeteria.

Sweetwater High School chickens

SUHSD buys eggs from the Sweetwater High School chicken farm to use in school meals. Fresh, local, and healthy!

“These new menu items are helping our cafeterias break the mold of what a traditional school lunch looks like, and we’re really excited about that,” says Span.

What else is on the horizon for Sweetwater cafeterias? Some of the new foods Span and his team are experimenting with involve edamame and falafel. These are both great sources of protein and add a lot to vegan meals.

Quick Cafe fruit and sides

Fresh fruit, veggies, and hummus at a cafe at Eastlake Middle School make healthy snacks easy.

Keep an eye on your school menus over the next few months and let us know what you think of these new options!


Eastlake Middle School Unveils a New Grill at Lunchtime Celebration

Eastlake Middle School Unveils New Grill

The latest in a series of brand new barbecue grills was unveiled during lunch at Eastlake Middle School on February 21. Nutrition services team members christened the grill by serving up all-beef hamburgers, barbecued baby back ribs, tuna melts, and a hot dog that critics have called, “the best in America,” to excited students.

America's best hot dog at Eastlake Middle School

Wellshire Farms all-natural, all-beef hot dogs, sold at Whole Foods AND SUHSD schools. Named “best hot dog in America” by the NY Times.

All school meals conform to federal nutritional standards, but the grills offer an expansion on the current menu. The new menu items include lean meats that are lower in saturated fats and are part of a larger shift towards a greater variety of nutritious foods, including new vegetarian and vegan items. The new grills are a departure from traditional school lunches, elevating school food and creating a more inviting atmosphere on campus. Students were visibly excited about the changes.

Happy Student at Eastlake Middle School

Eastlake Middle School students excitedly making their way to the new grill for lunch.

Several members of the school district community were on campus to support the new addition, including Eric Span, Director of Nutrition Services, Moises Aguirre, Assistant Superintendent of Facilities and Operations, Ricardo Cooke, Eastlake Middle School Principal, and Frank Tarantino, School District Board Member.

SUHSD Leaders

Sweetwater Unified High School District representatives at Eastlake Middle School to unveil the new grill.

Multiple media outlets also attended the celebration, including San Diego Union-Tribune (photo gallery here), Channel 8 News, KUSI, and Univision TV. Even students were interviewed!

Students being interviewed by Channel 8

Eastlake Middle School students being interviewed by Channel 8 News.

Eric Span, Director of Nutrition Services for Sweetwater Union School District, says that rolling out grills to all of the middle and high schools is a response to student requests for more lunch options. One central cafeteria sometimes causes students to spend more of their lunch period in line than enjoying their lunch. By increasing the number of locations that students can get food they are able to spend more time eating it before going back to class.

Eastlake Middle students in line at the grill

Eric Span helping to pass out grilled lunches to students at Eastlake Middle School.

Aside from adding tasty lunch options, there are a number of benefits to the new grills: increased student nutrition, reduced food waste, and increased student excitement and engagement in school lunch. The grills create an undeniably fun atmosphere. Today, speakers filled the Eastlake Middle School lunch area with music, while the scent of freshly grilled hamburgers and hot dogs enticed students waiting in line. There was even an appearance by the Triton mascot!

Eastlake Middle School Triton Mascot

The Eastlake Triton mascot attended both lunch periods to celebrate the new grill!

In addition to these new grills, salad bars will be rolled out to schools over the coming months, offering each student a variety of healthy lunch choices. For $2.80, students can choose a main entree (hamburger, ribs, hot dog, or chicken) and a side (such as mac ‘n cheese) from the grill, plus a fruit and a drink. Traditional lunch options are available in the cafeteria as well.