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RUSD Leads Healthy Changes to School Lunches

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By Ashley Jones

Under First Lady Michelle Obama’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids (HHFK) Act of 2010, Riverside Unified School District (RUSD) has implemented major improvements to their nutritional programs in hopes of promoting better nutrition and reducing childhood obesity. RUSD currently serves 43,000 students and has 47 school sites.

Childhood obesity in California is a growing epidemic with 17 percent (approximately 12.5 million) of children ages 2-19 suffering from this disease. In response, RUSD will now offer both fruits and vegetables every day; increased offerings of whole grain foods; fat-free or low-fat milk; limited calories based on your child’s age; and decreased saturated fats, trans fats, sugars and sodium in school meals.

Prior to recent regulations, RUSD began to transform their nutrition services in 2002 with the implementation of salad bars. The first salad bar appeared seven years ago at Jefferson Elementary School in Riverside. The salad bar concept was introduced and led by Rodney Taylor, RUSD’s current Director of Nutritional Services. Mr. Taylor has served in school nutrition for 16 years and joined RUSD in 2002. Upon his arrival, RUSD had a debt of $3.1 million in the food service fund. Through the salad bar revenue, he not only resolved the budget, but also profited greatly.

“Don’t let anyone tell you that serving nutritional meals in schools are too expensive,” said Taylor. “Here I am, 16 years into this, and I still have people telling me that this model cannot work. I stand before crowds and say, why are you telling me you cannot do what I have been doing for 16 years? Why do you not tell them the truth? Tell them you do not want to work that hard. This is hard work, and it is for those that are committed to children,” said Taylor.

For a while, Taylor faced great opposition with the salad bar concept. Principals and employees did not want them. Taylor was fortunate to find Jefferson Elementary, the right school to adopt the concept. In its first day, 675 students ate from the salad bar. After that, about 300 salad bar meals were sold a day. The success of the salad bars grew and soon enough, 29 of the 31 elementary schools adopted the concept. Today, all of the elementary schools have the salad bar. In the last 7 years, Taylor said kids’ eating habits and their attitudes toward food have evolved. Children are now consuming more fruits and vegetables.

In 2010, RUSD introduced Fresh Express to its high schools and middle schools. Fresh Express includes a variety of specialty salads and sandwiches such as the Wally (Waldrof salad), mandarin salad, fruit parfait, and the fajita chicken on ciabatta. The Fresh Express menu was established by the Executive Chef and Catering Supervisor, Ryan Douglas.

Chef Douglas was a former Culinary Operations Manager at UC Riverside. “We have to be way more creative on how we present our food to the students. The creativity aspect bumps up against the wall by what we can give [the students] because our menu has to meet federal guidelines,” said Douglas. Chef Douglas is also working with the Riverside County Department of Social Services to produce a video program that aims to help low income families prepare healthy meals and enroll in CalFresh, the federal food stamp program. Reportedly, millions of dollars in food stamp benefits go unclaimed in Riverside County annually. The videos, produced by RUSD high school students, will be shown in lobbies of WIC offices (both Riverside and San Bernardino Counties), county offices, senior centers, community centers, and health clinics.

RUSD will continue to transform its nutritional services by furthering the reduction of processed foods, expanding the use locally grown fruits and veggies and continuing to establish the district’s wellness policy. More information about RUSD’s Nutrition Services can be found by visiting HYPERLINK "http://www.rusdlink.org"www.rusdlink.org or by calling the Nutrition Services Department at 951-352-6740.

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