By Mary MacVean, Los Angeles Times |http://lat.ms/9j8FVZ
Students chat with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at the school's salad bar, which was created with the help of a chef. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times / October 12, 2010
October 13, 2010 - At least for one day, the students at Fremont Elementary School in Long Beach could be heard chanting, "Salad! Salad! Salad!" before lunch Tuesday.
Maybe it helped that they had an audience, including their principal, the Long Beach mayor, a congresswoman, a county supervisor and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Sebelius visited Fremont, a high-achieving school of about 400 students in Belmont Heights, to show it off as a model for healthy eating and to promote First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" initiative to solve the childhood obesity epidemic.
In addition to the salad bar, which debuted Tuesday, the school has an organic garden and a fourth-grade program on taste, nutrition and cooking. A fundraising jog-a-thon is scheduled for next week; the school shies away from candy sales, Principal Mark Hammond said.
"It's all tied together. The education program with the fourth-graders helps them see what's good for them," Hammond said.
Sebelius stopped at the garden to talk to students and taste a green bean and a basil flower, given to her by fifth-grader Gracie McIlvaine. "They taste really good," Gracie said. "Like basil. She really liked it."
Chef Paul Buchanan of Primal Alchemy, a Long Beach catering company, gave some tips on making pesto and told her he hopes eventually that food harvested from the garden will go to the school's salad bar.
Sebelius noted that for many children, school food comprises half the calories they eat in a day. "A lot of them would prefer fresh foods if they knew about them," she said.
Later, she acknowledged that school districts need more money to provide fresh, healthy food. The National School Lunch Program feeds about 30 million children, and the federal government reimburses schools less than $3 per lunch for every child whose family meets income qualifications.
Many school food advocates have called for an increase in those rates, including chef Alice Waters, who has advocated $5 per child, but Sebelius said such an increase was not on the horizon.
Instead, she said, schools need to turn to foundations, local farms, businesses and parents for help in making the best use of what they have. Getting kids to eat better, she said, is a matter of "our national security."
Buchanan, whose daughter Skye is in fourth-grade at the school, has been working with Fremont for 11 years. He runs a program that introduces students to taste, label-reading and manners. The students shop at a farmers market, prepare food and sit down to a meal.
"Eleven years ago, 90% of the room drank sodas. And maybe one in 30 had been to the farmers market. Now, more than half have been to the market, and less than half drink regular sodas," Buchanan said in an interview. "It's made a huge impact."
Another school in the Long Beach district had a salad bar a few years ago, "but we were unable to sustain it," said Cecelia Slater, the district's nutrition services director. She has hopes for Fremont, in part because the school has parents willing to help out.
The school's new salad bar also has its own ambassadors, fourth- and fifth-graders who wore green arm bands with pictures of produce on them for Tuesday's event.
The ambassadors all said they like salad and try to eat healthy, and Reno Costanza, a fourth-grader, thinks they'll get "lots of kids" to change their habits.
"Do you know how they make chicken nuggets?" asked ambassador Brandon Bennett, also a fourth-grader. "You don't want to know."