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August 24, 2006

Talk of the Table heading

Feeding Kids Right



Before dreams of scoring fatty paychecks lured me to the world of weekly newspaper reporting, I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life. So I took a women's studies class at HSU called "Life Work Options for Women." Our first project of the semester was to outline, in some artistic fashion on a huge sheet of butcher paper, the high and low points of our existence, from our very earliest memories. To make it more mortifying we had to go over every detail with the 10 other people in the class. Of all the tales of dysfunctional families I heard that day the one I was unable to block from my memory was a woman's retelling of her childhood nadir. It involved free lunch.

No such thing as free lunch, you say? Well, you're right. At least that was the case in one sadistic California elementary school where the low-income kids who got free lunch had to pay their way, so to speak, by serving lunch to the kids whose family could afford those inedible rectangles of cardboard pizza. That's right, once everyone else got their food, then the poor kids could eat. Decades later the raw embarrassment she felt was still indelible.

Around here, lots of kids are eligible for free and reduced lunch and while they fortunately are not forced against their will and better judgment to work the cafeteria, they still have to eat lunches that are historically nasty and unhealthful, especially by the standards of organic-a-go-go Humboldt County. That's why Coastal Grove Charter School is passing on subsidized lunches next week when they start cooking their own food with as many organic ingredients as they can afford.

Violet Hales, a teacher's aid and parent of a Coastal Grove student (and also the sister-in-law of Journal Editor Hank Sims) started the process of changing menus at her school this summer. Organic lunches took off a few years ago at Big Lagoon Charter School, where Hales used to work. Now that Big Lagoon is merging with Coastal Grove, they're hoping to continue the menu, but there are some obstacles. For one, the kitchen at their new Arcata site is not equipped with enough ovens. How all the kids will pay for it is another matter: 60 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

"We're hoping that parents that can afford it can do a little more and cover the kids who can't afford it," Hales said. "We're jumping into it and hoping it will work out."

The movement toward organic is happening everywhere, Hales said, citing an organization called Two Angry Moms that is fighting for healthy lunches.

"It has gone to extremes, where schools are having their lunches provided by fast-food chains," Hales said.

Coastal Grove was awarded close to $2,000 in grants through the Humboldt Area Foundation's Schulze-Kronenberg Memorial Fund and its Agnes and Kenneth Ogilvie Memorial Fund to buy pots, pans and other cooking equipment, possibly a stove. And more money will funnel in this Saturday, Aug. 26 -- just in time for the new school year -- at the Organic Planet Festival from 11 a.m.- 8 p.m. at Halvorsen Park, at the foot of L Street, near the Adorni Center in Eureka.

Coastal Grove will have kids' activities, a petting zoo, crafts, games and other non-toxic family fun to raise money for their organic lunch program. Keynote speaker Chef Ann Cooper from Berkeley will discuss her Bay Area efforts to "turn the unhealthy yucks of conventional meals into the healthy yums of organic delights for schools across America, at prices schools can afford." Foodies can also rejoice that festival organizers will also toss together the biggest organic salad ever assembled in the world.

Meanwhile Big Lagoon and Coastal Grove Chef Hope Reinman is scrambling to get the kitchen ready for school on Monday. She has high hopes for the budding program, though it will kick off with a simple menu while they resolve their budget concerns.

"The ultimate goal is a full-service hot lunch program, but there is one stove and 180 kids, so it will be soup and salad until other arrangements can be made," said Reinman, whose children are enrolled at Coastal Grove this year. "I come and cook, but this program is really driven by the parents. They are the ones that make it happen and get together and say, `We want lunches cooked on site.' The consensus is that they want organic. We go with organic where we can, but you can't go 100 percent. If we can't get organic we at least go local."

That includes tortillas from Bien Padre, jams from Zimmerman's and organic bagels from Garberville. The trick to getting affordable organic fruits and veggies is staying tight with produce managers at grocery stores, according to Reinman.

"They can scope for you what is a reasonable price," she said. "Organic produce can be prohibitive in terms of cost so I constantly keep in touch with the people at Murphy's and the Co-op." Broccoli, pears, apples and "lots of potatoes" also come straight from Humboldt County farmers.

At Laurel Tree Charter School, the students have been whipping up lunches as part of the curriculum for the past 10 years, and not just the poor kids.

"There is adult supervision," said school Principal Brenda Sutter, who started the school from her home 12 years ago. "The kids put together the menu and cook. Its a tribal system. Junior high and high school students work in groups.

"They make a really good fettuccine, a really nice curry and a pot pie. I love their pot pie, it's vegetarian," she continued. "But if they mess up, we still have to eat it."

Lunches are $2 a piece and kids whose families are struggling are charged $1. Since Laurel Tree was never part of the federal and state free lunch funding, they learned from the beginning how to do without it, and students have always had a say in what they were eating. "It's a long term process," Sutter said.

Granted, it's easier when there are only 60 kids in the school, like at Laurel Tree.

The entire Arcata school district cooks lunch at one site and then ships the packaged meals off to the schools in the area. But some of the food is assembled elsewhere in the country. According to Hales, the peanut butter sandwiches came from Iowa.

"The rest of the school district is on such a different level," said Reinman. "It is not easy to cook for thousands of kids. It is a very different program from the one we are trying to create, and I would have a hard time translating our program to a bigger school. I think it is wonderful for kids to have that relationship to their meals, to know someone is cooking for them, to see that human link between their food and where it comes from. It doesn't arrive by magic."

To find out more about going organic in your school go to the Organic Planet Festival this weekend, visit or call 445-5100. Admission is $10, $5 before noon, free for children under 12.

your Talk of the Table comments, recipes and ideas to Bob Doran.


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