“I’ve never eaten a persimmon before!” So exclaimed a student at San Marcos High School in San Diego County recently, while eating lunch from his school district’s farm-to-school program. The program integrates fruits and vegetables from nearby farms into school-provided meals.
The high school is attended by more than 3,400 students, many from from middle- and low-income areas. It is one of 70 schools across 13 California counties that received funding from Blue Shield of California’s $500,000 donation to GENYOUth’s End Student Hunger Fund. The contribution supported the delivery and distribution of nutritious school meals to many high-need schools and students during National Nutrition Month in March. GENYOUth is a national nonprofit dedicated to creating healthier school communities by raising funds for wellness initiatives that give youth the inspiration, motivation, and programs to be healthy, high-achieving students.
Ana Guzman, Child Nutrition cashier, helped prepare bulk meal pick-ups for San Marcos High students.
Child Nutrition team cashiers (l-r) Yung Ling Andrews, Karen Walter, and Nancy Strankowski pitched in at San Marcos High during the pandemic lockdown.
“We expanded our farm-to-school program to give students the experience of eating foods they haven’t had before. We are so grateful that Blue Shield’s grant helped us do that,” said Naomi Shadwell, MS, RD, executive director of Child Nutrition Services for San Marcos Unified School District. Nearly 35 percent of the student body is eligible for federally-supported free and reduced-price meals at school because of their family income.
In Kern County, 2,400 students that attend Arvin High School also benefitted from Blue Shield’s donation. The school is in a rural community where the dominant industry is agriculture and many families struggle to make ends meet.
“Because of our region’s economics, about 80 percent of Arvin’s students are eligible for federal free and reduced-price meals. They rely on our breakfast, lunch, snacks, and suppers for their daily nutrition,” explained Jennifer Davis, director of Nutrition Services for Kern High School District. “We are thankful that Blue Shield’s donation helps us keep our students well-fed and healthy.”
Like most schools across the U.S., both San Marcos and Arvin High Schools have been on the front lines of food insecurity, serving thousands more free meals to students since the onset of the pandemic. While federal funding supported some additional meals for students, schools like Arvin and San Marcos High School still needed support to cover costs to purchase more nutritious ingredients, materials, and to fund meal delivery and pick up when schooling was remote.
“The funding from Blue Shield has helped us in many ways, easing our budget constraints overall. For example, supplies like the plastic food-handling gloves for our staff to safely prepare and serve food have skyrocketed in price due to supply-chain issues. We can’t prepare or serve food without them, so we must buy them,” said Arvin’s Davis.
“With research showing that kids who eat breakfast have improved attendance and academic performance, all students deserve access to the nutrition and meals needed to start their day,” said Ann Marie Krautheim, MA, RD, incoming CEO, president, and chief wellness officer of GENYOUth. “We are grateful to Blue Shield for their commitment to underserved and under-resourced communities and ensuring nutrition equity for all California students.”
Recognizing the critical role school meals play for children and families, beginning in the upcoming 2022-2023 school year, California will become the first state in the country to implement a statewide Universal Meals Program for school children. Building upon the federal National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program, it will expand California’s State Meal Mandate to include a nutritious breakfast and lunch for all children – not just students in need - every school day.