Teaching common core with a chard quinoa salad

January 4, 2018

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Reprint from article in Cabinet Report on December 4, 2017.

Every parent who knows the frustration of trying to get a child at mealtime to eat their vegetables should consider the challenge Paul Escala faces--he's got about twelve hundred kids to win over every day.

Escala is executive director of Grimmway Schools, which operates two charters in Arvin and Shafter, two small rural communities just outside of Bakersfield.

And like many parts of California where some of nation's the best produce is grown and exported, people here have much more access to fast food restaurants than they do to fresh produce.

"That's the biggest irony of all," he said. "Most of these families are working in the very fields where healthy foods are being cultivated, picked and sent out to markets far beyond the reach of these communities."

The needs are even deeper, however. "There's one market in Arvin for 25,000 residents," Escala explained. "There is just one health clinic where our students have to wait four or five months to see a physician unless it's an emergency, and then they have to drive all the way to Bakersfield.

"So we are trying to be a counterweight to what we are lacking in our communities," he said.

Although Californians as a whole ranks among the nation's healthiest populations, Kern County, where Grimmway is based, ranks near the bottom statewide.

According to statistics gathered by the University of Wisconsin in collaboration with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Kern County ranks 53 out of 57 counties in California for overall health outcomes with high rates of obesity and diabetes among both children and adults.

The charter's founder is Barbara Grimm-Marshall, co-owner of Grimmway Farms, one of the largest agricultural corporations in California.

The first school was opened in 2011 at Arvin. The school in Shafter opened in August. Both schools are K-8 and have a combined enrollment of about 1,200.

In addition to providing what they hope is a high-value curriculum that includes access to new technology and hands-on learning, there is also a school garden and a kitchen classroom inspired by noted Berkley chef and food activist, Alice Waters.

Waters and the principal of a middle school in Berkley created the first Edible Schoolyard in 1995, with some 5,500 coming since.

One of the fundamental goals of the schools is to put health and wellness at the center of a student's academic career. Escala said Grimm-Marshall wanted to do more to help the children of the company's employees who often couldn't participate in college scholarships that the firm offered.

"She took a long look at the disparity between communities in terms of their access to educational health and wellness programs," he explained. "She met Alice Waters and became interested in her work and that's where the edible schoolyard program started."

The effort appears to be working. The first group of 8th graders promoted out of the Arvin school last spring with more than half performing at or above state proficiency standards in math and English language arts.

They also believe they are having a positive impact on healthy eating--not just among the students, but their parents as well.

Sixty percent of students report a positive change in their opinions toward fresh and healthy produce since attending Grimmway schools, according to a school survey. Parents reported reducing their intake of junk food by 44 percent and sodas by 15 percent.

Getting kids to buy in, he said, isn't easy.

"Attitudinal changes take time," he said. "Especially as is in the case of our new school, a fourth grader, who's already been conditioned for eight years to eat McDonalds or Taco Bell. They are going to have to recalibrate their attitudes."

Students at the schools get two healthy meals a day, served not in a cafeteria, but in a "café." The meals are made from scratch by a chef who is supported by nutritional experts.

To help kids along, most of the school's adult staff are engaged at mealtime. Teachers are given free lunches so that they can eat with the kids and inspire exploration of the healthy choices.

Escala said that after some initial investment, the higher quality meals do not put a strain on the budget. Because the meals are prepared in whole on campus, they don't spend money on third party processors that many other schools do. And they also use everything they can.

"I'm also buying produce from local farmers and local companies, and I'm buying in bulk," he said. "When it comes to providing healthy foods that kids will enjoy, there is no margin for error."