Letter: Healthy Food

Letter to the Editor

In response to “School Board Discusses Updates to Food Service at Schools,” published on June 21.

I thought it ironic that Bonnie Murphy, a student at Juan Cabrillo Elementary School, understood better the role that school food should play in student learning than did Richard Marchini, the current SMMUSD [Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District] Director of Food and Nutrition Services. At the June 14 Board of Education meeting, she explicitly noted the connection between her brain function and the nutrition quality of the school food. By contrast, Marchini said, “Our ultimate goal with this program is for us to be self-sufficient, if not … [a] profit-making program.”

No, the ultimate goal of the SMMUSD food service program should be to optimize student learning. SMMUSD once had a farmers’ market-fresh salad bar program that was a model for the country and a Gardening Angels program, where students grew edible plants on campus garden plots. Children loved the vegetable soup that was served on a trial basis at Webster Elementary School two decades ago but the food services director refused to expand it for fear of incurring legal liability if a student spilled hot soup on another child. These programs optimized student learning but were dropped because of budget cuts.

Now, SMMUSD lunches feature bland packaged salads and heat-and-serve foods like frozen pizza and chicken nuggets that are energy-dense and high in sodium. SMMUSD ignored the pleas of hundreds of parents and refused to drop sugar-sweetened milk on the advice of Marchini’s predecessor, who feared that school lunch participation would drop if the students could not have their chocolate milk.

This is pennies wise, pound foolish. It is increasingly clear that school nutrition is one of the reasons why students from countries like Japan consistently outperform U.S. students in math, science and reading comprehension. In Japan, every student every school day gets a high-quality lunch meal, featuring lots of fresh vegetables, hot soup and fresh-caught fish. In Japan, good nutrition and optimal learning are seen as inextricably linked, unlike in California, where school food services are seen as discretionary adjuncts to the teaching function. 

It has become clear to me over the years that the SMMUSD is more concerned with balancing the budget than optimizing our children’s ability to learn by improving the nutritional quality of their school meals. When Malibu gets its own school district, we can do better.

William McCarthy