Eating Smart in L.A.

September 19, 2004

September 10, 2004

Los Angeles parent Arely Herrera joined a campaign for healthier school food, she says, when she realized that schools “were selling (out) our kids’ health” by providing easy access to junk food. So she joined the Healthy School Food Coalition (HSFC), whose three-year campaign marked a victory July 1. Starting this month, Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) students will see healthier snacks, salad bars, and other changes outlined in the district’s Obesity Prevention Motion.

School board member Marlene Canter says high rates of childhood obesity make this measure especially important. ”This is the first generation of children who [might] die younger than their parents from preventable health problems.”

Push to Action
HSFC, a grassroots group of parents, teachers, administrators, and students, formed with the help of Occidental College’s Center for Food and Justice. The center had created successful nutrition projects at selected schools, says Campaign Director Francesca De La Rosa, but realized they couldn’t improve nutrition district-wide without a grassroots campaign “to really push LAUSD to act.”

De La Rosa credits the campaign’s success to “parents—prepared, and aggressive—from low-income neighborhoods, primarily Spanish speaking.”

Educating Advocates
Participants’ first step was receiving training on nutrition. Youth organizer Marli Garcia says she learned things not covered in her school health class—“I never thought I was putting that much sugar [and] salt in my body!”

For Herrera, the nutrition training “helped me help my husband take care of his cholesterol.” And she started serving dishes like blended vegetables over rice. Now her kids eat vegetables “without complaining, because they don’t notice they’re eating cauliflower.”

Community Outreach
HSFC parents started campaigning for healthier food at their children’s schools by surveying “other parents who were waiting to pick their kids up,” Herrera says. Then HSFC made presentations at school parent/teacher events. Their first goal, says De La Rosa, was to create a “strong power base of parents, students, and administrators.”

Creative Campaigning
Groups of parents and students met privately with administrators and school board members. They also spoke at school board meetings, presented petitions, and sent board members gifts—jars of sugar, vitamin bottles, and organic fruit baskets—before key votes.

When administrators argued that school food was already fine, says Garcia, HSFC gave the school board samples of cafeteria food.

When school officials doubted that kids would eat fruits, HSFC brought a tempting variety of cut-up fruits to school cafeterias. “The kids ran to the fruits,” Herrera reports.

Financial fears
“At the center of the [school district’s] concern was really health vs. economics,” Canter explains. Schools get commissions of up to 36 percent on soda sales, she says, compared with 15 percent on healthier drinks. But schools can still get some money from food sales, says school board member Julie Korenstein, if they “create a market for healthier foods.” Kids will buy healthier food, she says, because “there will be no other options.” When Venice High substituted healthier food for junk food, she reports, food sales did drop, but then they went back up.

This article originally appeared in the July-August 2004 issue of the Children's Advocate, published by Action Alliance for Children.

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