By Samantha Weinstein
Green Right Now

SEA CLIFF, N.Y. — Denise Rieger spreads hummus on a whole wheat tortilla, chops up carrots, peppers and cucumber, layers on the vegetables and rolls the tortilla into a wrap. She prepares a fresh fruit salad of strawberries and grapes and puts everything in separate compartments of a lunch box for her daughter, Elle to bring to school. Rieger goes through this time-consuming preparation five days a week because she does not want her daughter eating what is being served for lunch in the school cafeteria.

“I won’t let my kids eat anything in the cafeteria, not one bit of food!” says Rieger.

A chili tasting at Sea Cliff hosted by the district's parent-led nutrition committee

The battle on the school lunch front is gaining momentum as unsatisfied parents and administrators band together to get processed foods and unhealthy snacks out of their school lunchrooms for good.

A particularly passionate committee of parents in Sea Cliff, New York on Long Island is fighting to revamp their district’s lunch menu, and they are getting results.

“There was always a nutrition committee, but it was weak,” says Rieger. Only one or two parents would come to the monthly meeting and offer up ideas on how to improve the school lunch, but they would be shot down and dismissed as too expensive, says Rieger.

The Sea Cliff Parent Community Association (their name for the PTA) decided to put out a sign-up sheet at “Back to School Night” in Sept. 2009 and got 12 parents to form the Sea Cliff School Nutrition Committee. Rieger was asked to be the chair.

A diverse group of parents including a pediatrician, a nutritionist, and a yoga instructor makes up the committee.

“We long for a cafeteria which serves simple seasonal food, in an environment that fosters community. We want our children to understand the connection between the foods they eat and the farmers that produce the food,” says Luisa Giugliano, a yoga instructor, parent, and committee member.

The first thing the committee wanted was to get the labels for the meal items their kids were being served. It turned out to be a challenge. Sara Jones, a member and contributor to the committee’s blog, scsfood.blogspot.com, offered to organize and scan the labels herself before the manufacturers eventually agreed to hand them over. The North Shore School District, which includes a high school, middle school and three elementary schools, posted the information on the district website and the committee e-mailed the update to parents and faculty.

Raising awareness and getting parent’s support is the biggest step, says Rieger.

“The superintendent was all for it, but he wanted the backing of the parents before moving forward,” she says.

One of the committee’s missions is to involve the children and to teach them about wholesome, nutritious food. They held a healthy bake sale with treats containing no refined sugar and organic ingredients. It sold out. The $140 raised will go towards improving nutrition education in the school.

The committee also designed a district-wide nutrition survey to see what parents in the district want and do not want to be served in the cafeteria.

“We were nervous about the results,” said Rieger.

It turns out that Rieger and her committee had nothing to worry about. The majority of parents support fresh fruits and vegetables, more whole grains and less processed foods in the cafeteria.

The results of the survey indicated that 89.6 percent of parents want fresh fruit as a snack, whereas just 26.5 percent of parents who would like to keep Kellogg’s Reduced Sugar Frosted Flakes as a snack option.

When asked why their children were not eating lunch at school about 25 percent of the parents reported that the “Offering are not healthy enough” and another 50 percent said that their child “Doesn’t like the school lunch.”

Picking tomatoes in the Sea Cliff garden.

The Kinder Garden was another project of the committee, which created the space for students to grow their own food and also to study lessons outside. The PCA raised funds to add a pond to the garden this past year.

The superintendent even got involved and found a grant to plant 40 organic fruit trees on school property.

Even though school is in recess for the summer, the committee is not taking a break. Members are hard at work making plans for the upcoming fiscal year.

The school board approved the hiring of Julia Van Loon, a School Food Reform Consultant in June to revamp the school lunch menu. She began planning in July and plans to unveil her ideas at a meeting in August.

“The children are the ultimate recipients,” says Van Loon. “That’s why I’m doing this.”

Van Loon is impressed with the committee and plans to be as hands-on as possible.

“The worst thing I hear is when a mother says to her child, ‘I don’t think you’re going to like that.’ Children are very open. It’s only when someone tells them ‘You don’t like that,’ that they don’t,” she says.

Van Loon plans to work with the schools for the next year. Though there have been a lot of changes in Sea Cliff recently, she hesitates to call what is happening nationally a “revolution.”

“Passion is a revolution,” she says. “Change is an evolution.”

“This is a national movement supported by a grassroots movement, and this committee is a group of activists,” says Van Loon.

With a lot of support, it is easy to see how this district is getting results.

The first thing to do is to use your PTA, says Jones, “Put out a list to find out who are your allies,” she says. “There is power in numbers, a lot of power, and you have to be willing to make some noise.”

With the deadline for the U.S. Senate to vote on the reauthorized Child Nutrition Act (named the Healthy, Hunger-free Kids Act of 2010) getting closer, making some noise may be necessary. If the bill does not reach the senate floor by Sept. 30, 2010 it could be postponed for another one to two years. The bill is reauthorized once every five years and has far-reaching implications. In the face of budget cuts, the reauthorized bill in 1981 classified ketchup as a vegetable, cookies and chips as a bread and dropped 2 million children from the National School Lunch Program.

Currently about 31 million children participate in the National School Lunch Program, according to the USDA. About 10.6 million children received breakfast at school in 2007.

“So many of America’s children are getting two meals a day at school,” says Van Loon. “Some parents don’t think the food is bad, but it is almost a fact that this will be the first generation of children to not outlive their parents. It’s frightening.”

Parents don’t even realize changes are taking place, says Rieger. “You actually do have a voice.”

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