Many parents today are clamoring for an improvement in their kids’ school lunch programs. It’s no surprise: lacking in nutrients and full of salt, fat, sugar and preservatives, school diets have been a contributing factor in the sharp rise of food-associated illnesses such as diabetes in the US.
There are numerous barriers to making the needed changes, however. School district budgets are at an all-time low. Cafeteria kitchens in schools are only prepared to heat food, not cook it. And last but not least, kids won’t eat unappealing food.
Al Baylacq, co-owner of Good Earth Natural Foods in Fairfax, California, encountered these and other problems eight years ago when he and his partner, Mark Squire, decided that fixing the school lunch problem would be a great way to give back to their community. “When I first started looking into it and how bad our standards and our foods were, it seemed like it was going to take ten years to make any changes,” Baylacq told Natural Vitality Kids. “It was a real challenge, and there was no book I could open and find out how to do a school lunch program. Everything was in the public sector. There might have been a day when private businesses were running school lunches, but not to any great degree because there’s just no money in it; it’s about covering your costs.”
Today, however, his organic school lunch program is a proven winner. “This is our eighth year, and it’s paying for itself,” Baylacq said. “It’s pretty successful. We went into it, not with the idea of making money, but really to give back and invest in our community. We now understand what teachers, parents or even a business like ours is up against in making changes where they really need to be made in food.”
The first element that Baylacq found was needed was parents who cared. It was with the cooperation of parents that Good Earth was able to begin their school lunch initiative. “The one key aspect of the early success we had was that we partnered with four private schools,” he said. “We really were on the backs of parents who could afford to pay five bucks a day for their kid’s lunch. I look back at that and it was a tremendous bonus to be involved with families that could really support the whole start of the operation.”
But it isn’t only paying for lunch that’s entailed. A school lunch also requires volunteers to serve it, as schools just don’t have the needed personnel for their cafeterias. “Back when food was prepared on-site in the cafeteria, you had a couple of people for the preparation and a janitor who cleaned up the cafeteria before and after. Those budgets have gone away. The mindset for the last 25 to 30 years has been “We can’t afford to do this lunch thing anymore. Where are we going to cut?” They start cutting staff and before they know it they have one person. How much can one person do?
“So we needed volunteers. Now, within a specific district, there’s a team of about 60 volunteers involved, and any given day there are 15 to 20 of them pulling off serving lunch.”
Over time, Good Earth evolved the program and adapted it for public schools as well—which also requires parental support and volunteers.
The toughest route was selling schools from the lower economic strata—but they did it. “In the public system the biggest issue for business or any lunch program is to deal with the ‘free’ and ‘reduced’ population,” Baylacq explained. “It’s pretty considerable in a couple of the schools. In the largest district, Larkspur School District, out of a thousand kids I would say there are about 25 to 30 percent that are ‘free’ and ‘reduced.’ Our lunch price for those schools is $4.60, and the school is paying above and beyond what they’re getting from the federal program.”
Once economic barriers are solved within a school district, though, there is likely the toughest issue of all: the kids themselves and what they will eat.
“The clientele is as brutal as it gets in terms of kids’ eating and pickiness of parents’ views on what their kids should be served—what’s edible and what’s not,” Baylacq related. “We tried to be on the good side of the wheat flour and white sugar issue; but, to be frank, the younger population, unless they had been eating pretty healthy wholesome foods at home, were at least in the early days affronted by the fact that they were being asked to eat a whole-wheat pizza or whole-wheat pasta. It’s a real stretch for many. After the first initial whole-wheat shock, we reverted to a mixed white and whole-wheat flour for our pizza dough. We immediately cut the whole-wheat pasta, which was just not going to fly, and went to an organic unbleached wheat, semolina flour pasta dough.”
Once the bumps were traversed, however, both kids and parents were sold. “After the first couple of months the reputations grew and people realized they were getting a real quality kid-friendly lunch. Even the teachers at the schools became involved and started buying our lunches. Once the parents of a school got enough momentum, the school board would just get in line and decide to switch lunch programs.”
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No GMOs Here
Genetically modified produce is now creeping in everywhere we look—but not into Good Earth, and actually not into the store’s home, Marin County, which, thanks to the efforts of Squire and Baylacq, has an ordinance against the growing of GMO crops. “I would say if it weren’t for our customer base, that ordinance wouldn’t have passed,” Baylacq said. “We probably had 1,500 signatures that were gathered in front of our store to get it onto the ballot, and then six months of just reminding people to vote in the right way. We were fighting the PR machines of the GMO companies, who really weren’t ready for this fight. The effort to stop it was seen as this big money-backed media blitz, and there simply was a natural revolt against it. It passed and the next year our neighbor, Mendocino County, followed suit and they now have an ordinance passed.”
It’s no surprise. Baylacq’s partner, Mark Squire, was watching the GMO experiments 20 years ago and was prepared. “Mark was out on the front end of that understanding and had seen it coming. Like anything, especially in the hallways of Washington, it’s hard to compete with the Monsantos of the world; so our attention has been on educating the consumer and getting the consumer to demand labeling of GMOs. We’re just trying to bring attention to it, whether it’s through newsletter stories or shelf talkers. There are a couple of products that we took off our shelves because the manufacturer has not convinced us that they are willing to source organic or non-GMO soy or non-GMO corn. That non-GMO stance is part of our standard, and is also a standard for our school lunch program.”
Baylacq didn’t see the program as truly viable unless it was also sustainably operated. “We’re in trouble on this planet in terms of resources,” Baylacq said. “We’ve got to quickly figure out how to limit our use of them. We keep throwing away plates, cups and forks every day, times hundreds and thousands, which adds up. When we went to school, we all had trays and silverware and there was nothing to throw away except the leftover food. That’s all gone. Unfortunately, I think there are very few businesses out there like us even trying to make a go at it because of the difficulty of bringing food on location and dealing with quality issues and all the garbage associated with it. So we do everything from scratch. The food is served in chafing dishes and about half our kids per day use a paper plate; the other half we worked with and sold folks on the idea of each kid being responsible for bringing his or her own flatware and fork, and the idea is growing.”
Baylacq also transports sustainably: all deliveries are made with vans that run on 40 percent biodiesel fuel.
Someday, perhaps, healthy school lunches will be mandated by law. But for now it’s going to take healthy-minded parents literally stepping up to the plate.
“I get calls all the time from parents from different school districts, asking how to start,” Baylacq concluded. “I tell them that they have to pull their local parents together. If they don’t have a consortium of support behind them I can’t really get involved, because I know how much work it is.
“At some point the school districts and school boards will understand funding healthy food and that there is a real value in not only serving healthy food but getting the crap out of the schools; and I think it will come back around and there will be more funding in the future. The diabetes and the obesity issues are driving that primarily right now. It’s unfortunate that we’ve got to have multiple epidemics before we figure it out, but I think that’s the way things are.”
To find out more about the Good Earth healthy school lunch program, visit www.goodearthorganiclunches.com.