School Food Service Director’s War on Sugar: Miguel Villarreal

Jun 16, 2014 by

Every week seems to bring a new report on how harmful added sugar is to our health, but how many of us can claim to have eliminated literally tons of sugar from kids’ diets? Meet Miguel Villarreal, head of school food service for Novato Unified School District, about 30 miles north of San Francisco.


Villarreal was hired by NUSD in 2002; learning that 35% of their students were deemed overweight based on the California Healthy Kids Survey, he knew he had to take immediate action to address this problem.


He decided the best approach was to get rid of processed food and beverages that were high in sugar. Sodas were still being sold in the middle and high schools in 2002, so he told the NUSD Chief Financial Officer that we would be removing them, knowing this would end a $70,000 revenue stream.


His plan was to increase breakfast participation to help make up for the lost soda revenue. By making breakfast part of the school day, he was able to get over 1,400 NUSD students a day to eat breakfast, where previously only 200 had done so. The extra revenue more than made up for the loss of soda money.


Next, Villarreal phased out high sugar foods like pastries, cookies and cereals, and in 2006 he eliminated flavored milk in all elementary schools, and eventually from all NUSD schools. After hearing Dr. Robert Lustig of UCSF speak on the toxicities of refined sugars, he eliminated all juice products served with meals (a limited number of 100% juices are available a la-carte at the middle and high schools.)


To date, he estimates that he has eliminated a total of 400 pounds of sugar per day from the NUSD school meal program, the equivalent of 36 tons of sugar, every year since 2006.


There’s no doubt that Miguel Villarreal is one of the most forward-thinking school food leaders in the country. He spoke with me recently about what makes a school meal program successful, how to get high school students to eat in the cafeteria, why he does not support the School Nutrition Association’s lobbying Congress to roll back new healthy school food regulations, and his belief that the job of Director of School Food Service should be changed to Director of Wellness.


Q. – How should a community evaluate the success of their school meal program?


A. – In the end, a successful school food service program is one that meets the financial and wellness goals of the school district.


Success is not necessarily measured by the number of students eating, nor by the healthiness of the food, if the kids are not eating it. Schools with lots of students eating may still be serving highly processed “kid” friendly meals. Is this more “successful” than a school district that is attempting to promote healthier, less processed food?


Case in point: Hot dogs used to be one of most popular menu items served in our elementary schools, and we always had high student participation, but hot dogs are very highly processed and are not a healthful food. On the other hand, a teriyaki rice bowl with brown rice , chicken and fresh vegetables would not be as popular, but would be much healthier for the students.


I do not subscribe to the theory that having students eat highly processed food is better than not having anything to eat. School food service programs must figure out how to overcome this way of thinking if they are going be part of the wellness solution.


Q. – How can schools promote healthier food so that the students will eat it happily?


A. – It takes much more effort to teach the students to eat healthier food. Taste samplings must be conducted routinely, and parents and classroom teachers must be in engaged in this process. We call our student taste samplings “Café Wellness Days” (CWD). We involve students, teachers and parents, and create excitement about healthful entrees when we hold CWD. We also take simple surveys during the CWD to evaluate the success of the food we are sampling.


Healthful entrees that are introduced at school sites without CWD have a lower rate of student acceptance. The best example of that was the Three Bean Salad.  It was very popular at the school where we sampled it and had collaboration with the teachers; kids were asking for seconds. When we rolled this out to the rest of the schools, it was a flop.


Q. – About 90% of schools that serve lunch also serve breakfast, but nationwide only about half as many students eat breakfast as eat lunch, and often that number is much lower (in SF it is about 25%.) What is the best way to get more kids eating school breakfast?


A. – Breakfast programs that are part of the school day have proven to be the most successful; traditional breakfast periods before the beginning of the school day usually have the lowest student participation. It takes more effort, creativity and financial support from grants and other resources to serve breakfast during the school day, but thousands of schools have managed to do this successfully.


In Novato, breakfast is served at morning recess at our elementary and middle schools. One of our high schools serves breakfast before school and during recess; the other HS only serves during recess.


In 2003, when we served breakfast before school, only about 50 of our K-5th grade students ate the meal. As soon as we switched to serving breakfast at morning recess (between 9-9:45 am), on average 900-1000 K-5 students began eating, and that number has remained constant.


Our breakfast, which must be easy to eat in less than 10 minutes, varies from simple pre-packaged food items like cereals, muffins, bagels, and pancakes, to items we assemble, like parfaits, Sunbutter sandwiches, egg sandwiches and burritos, all served with fruit and milk.


Running a successful breakfast program requires support from all stakeholders, from the Superintendent, School Board, and teachers, to the custodians, office staff, and school food service staff, and including parents and community health allies.


Q. – The number of students who eat school lunch typically drops from elementary school to middle school, and then drops again at high school. What can schools do to keep high school kids eating in the cafeteria?


A. – The number one thing a high school can do to increase student participation is to close the campus. School administrators must then make plans to ensure a greater number of students can be served during lunch. It may mean building new facilities with equipment for cooking a variety of meals, improving the area where students eat, adding more serving carts and consequently more staff, splitting lunch periods, increasing the time given to students or a combination of any of these strategies.


HS students must be treated like adult consumers. Engaging them in making decisions about the meals they are served, and their environment, is also beneficial. Next school year, we plan to have every Freshman through Senior tour the HS kitchen. This tour will be led by select HS students, who will be provided with a script to engage their classmates in peer to peer education.


I’m convinced that many HS students do not eat school meals because they are unaware of the details of our food service program, including where and how their meals are prepared, and why we take added measures to provide healthful meals.


Q. – You are a supporter of “Meatless Monday.” Tell me about that.


A. – In 2008, I told our Superintendent that we would no longer serve red meat. I made that decision right after yet another beef recall, my 8th as a school food service director in a time span of 20 years! Officials called that one (at the Westland/ Hallmark Meat Packing Company in Chino, California) the largest beef recall in US history.


We did not have mass student walk outs or parents complaining because we were not serving industrialized beef to their children. Today, we also promote Meatless Monday. Meatless burritos are popular with our elementary students, while the older students love our veggie sandwich.


The Meatless Monday campaign has allowed us to educate our students on the health benefits of eating more plant based meals and the impact on the environment. Students have learned that it takes approximately 2000 gallons of water for every one pound of beef. That is huge deal in a drought stricken state like California.


Q. – The School Nutrition Association has been lobbying Congress to waive some of the landmark changes to school meals required by the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, including requirements for more whole grains, for students to take a fruit or vegetable with their school lunch, new sodium limits, and the “Smart Snacks in Schools” rules to improve the food sold outside of the federal meal program. What do you think of the SNA position on this?


A. – I’ve been an SNA member since the early 1990s, and I do not agree with SNA that we should be lobbying Congress to waive the landmark changes; instead, SNA should be promoting the many school food service programs that have implemented the standards successfully. We cannot afford to slow down at this point. We know exactly what is contributing to the chronic illness epidemic and we need to do everything in our power to address the problem.


Involving collaborative partners and educating everyone about the school food service program is essential for success.


Many schools that have been rolling out the higher USDA standards over several years are not struggling with the new regulations. Schools that are just now starting to implement them are the ones that are struggling. In time, these schools will also experience success with their programs.


SNA and our own California School Nutrition Association should have been doing so much more all along to help school districts that are experiencing problems meeting the new HHFKA standards, rather than requesting waivers from Congress.


We have allowed ourselves to be led and influenced by the interests of food manufactures for too long!


Q. – What one piece of advice do you have for school districts about how they could better serve their students?


A. – We need to redefine the role of the traditional Director of Food Services to that of the Director of Wellness. The current food service director positions are primarily responsible for operations; extremely important, but it is difficult to change the overall culture of wellness of a school district or community just by improving school food. Students, parents, school staff and the community at large must embrace wellness as a comprehensive approach.


The Director of Wellness would be responsible for overseeing and helping coordinate all food, nutrition and wellness programs in the schools and community. Helping to connect the 3 C’s – Cafeteria, Classroom and Community – through coalition building with all vested individuals and organizations, as discussed in the book Food Justice by Robert Gottlieb and Anapuma Joshi.


The Director of Wellness would collaborate with numerous allied organizations in their communities, county, city and around the state, and serve as committee, advisory or board member for many of those same organizations, ensuring that the school food service program served as a hub for wellness both in schools and in the community. The Director of Wellness should also sit on the school district’s Cabinet and work closely with all internal educational departments.


If we want to see real, sustainable improvements in our children’s health, wellness and academic achievement, then it’s time for a major shift in how we view school food service programs. Sustainable change works when inside and outside forces come together for a common good.


Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

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BeyondChron | School Food Service Director’s War on Sugar: Miguel Villarreal.

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