How healthy is that school lunch?

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Eight-year-old Maribel Monroy scored a home run with the healthy lunch she recently brought to school in her San Francisco Giants lunchbox. The majority of her peers across the country typically strike out, though, with the contents of their sack lunches.

A new study conducted by Tufts University found that school lunches packed at home are typically higher in sugar and calories and lower in nutrition than lunches served in school cafeterias. Local students who carry home-packed lunches seem to mimic those findings.

While Maribel and her fourth-grade classmates Alexia Alcaraz and Makayla Garrett each show up with a sandwich and fresh fruit, others are stuffed with processed foods and no main course.

“When deciding what to pack, parents are juggling time, cost, convenience and what is acceptable to their children. Unfortunately, these factors are not always in harmony with good nutrition,” said Jeanne Goldberg, a Tufts University professor and the study’s lead author.

“Lunches were comprised more of packaged foods than anything else. Almost a quarter of the lunches lacked what would be considered an entrée, such as a sandwich or leftovers, and were instead made up of a variety of packaged snack foods and desserts.”

That’s little surprise to Mary Ann Bridant, a noon duty supervisor at Sassarini Elementary School and the mother of three children, one each in high school, middle school and grade school.

“People complain about school lunches, but they’re pretty good,” Bridant said. “The lunches made at school are portioned out and made with specific ingredients. They count calories. It’s all balanced.”

In fact, meals served in Sonoma Valley public school cafeterias meet and even exceed the new federal standards of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

Bridant is in her eighth year monitoring lunchtime behavior and encouraging kids to try everything on their cafeteria trays. She also has noticed the contents of sack lunches from home, with packaged Lunchables, snack crackers and high-sugar juice packs among the popular items.

“One student had a mayonnaise sandwich, and the parents thought it was absolutely fine,” Bridant said. “For ‘fruit,’ he had (store packaged) Jell-O. That was the worst-case scenario.”

Despite her awareness and best efforts, as a busy working mom, she admits her own children don’t always leave home with a perfectly nutritious sack lunch.

“Even in my kids’ lunches there’s more sugar than in the school lunches,” Bridant said.

Maribel, the El Verano fourth-grader, already understands the relationship between good nutrition and good grades.

“If you don’t have a nice lunch at school, you won’t have any energy for the rest of the day,” she said.

Maribel alternates between bringing lunch and eating cafeteria food. On cafeteria days, she benefits from the oversight of Cody Williams, a professional chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and with a resume that includes Napa Valley favorites Mustards Grill and Boon Fly Café.

Williams left the hospital industry last fall to manage Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s food services program, which serves breakfast and between 2,700 and 3,000 lunches daily.

He said he took the job because he “wanted to make a difference” in how and what children eat. He succeeded retiring manager Donna Luzzi, whom he credits with aligning the district’s compliance with federal nutrition guidelines.

Of the 4,600 students enrolled in the local school district, 61 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches. Williams, 34, works under the constraints of limited time and money to produce nutritious lunches that appeal to kids from kindergarten through high school.

He has eliminated nearly all packaged foods, sources local produce he promotes as the Harvest of the Month and has reduced menu choices to those most appealing to kids and with the highest nutrition values. Cheese pizza made the cut and so did hamburgers, now served on wheat buns. Chicken nuggets have been replaced by healthier chicken tenders.

“They’re all made in-house or cooked in-house,” Williams said. Commodity goods provided by the USDA are balanced with local products as the foundation for a “simple, streamlined menu,” he said.

Williams said the district is at an advantage, with on-site kitchens at its eight campuses (the two charter schools are without kitchens) and cafeteria managers dedicated to continually improving services. He recently was awarded a $75,000 grant from the California Department of Education to purchase cafeteria equipment to aid in those efforts.

The program also benefits from the Sonoma Nutrition and Physical Activity Advisory Council, a community liaison group that brainstorms with food services staff and implements the district’s Wellness Policy, designed to foster overall health.

The School Garden Project headed by food and wine writer Kathleen Hill also has school gardens in place on every campus, which promote healthy eating and the concept of farm-to-table dining. In addition, Williams works with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers to bring quality produce onto cafeteria trays.

These efforts are slowly but steadily working, he said.

“It gives students the vehicles for a healthy life. We’re all coming together to make things happen,” Williams said. “If it can’t work here , we’re screwed as a country.”

During a recent two-week period, students harvested 120 pounds of vine-ripened tomatoes from school gardens.

Terry Campbell, the kitchen manager at El Verano Elementary School, added just-picked tomatoes, cucumbers and sweet red peppers to the green salad and chicken tostadas she was serving. The produce was grown by horticulture students at nearby Altimira Middle School.

Campbell, now in her 25th year with the district’s food services department, said kids have slowly embraced the changes in their school lunches, saying goodbye to popular items like Sloppy Joes and getting used to more grains, fruits and vegetables.

“It is a learning curve, for sure,” she said. “It’s definitely evolved.”

Produce from fresh jicama sticks to whole apples, pears, oranges, sliced melons, pineapple chunks and grapes are almost as popular as the number-one menu feature at El Verano, Brunch for Lunch, Campbell said.

Williams said the district has raised its produce budget from $45,000 to $200,000, a figure that reflects its emphasis on eating fresh fruits and vegetables.

“The high salts and high processed foods were creating the epidemic we’re all fighting against,” he said.

District Superintendent Louann Carlomagno views the food service efforts as another way to help students. “It’s a long day of learning,” she said, and a nutritious lunch “makes them more productive during the day. I think it’s critical.”

El Verano fourth-graders Pablo Garcia, Cesar Santoyo and Tyler Kirby downed a school lunch of cheese pizza, green salad, fresh fruit and Clover Stornetta milk as they pondered the value of a healthy lunch one recent day.

With afternoon class time devoted to math, social studies and reading, they agreed their school lunch had two important values — filling them up and keeping them focused on learning.

Plus, Tyler said, “It tastes good.”

For more information about the local school lunch program, visit svusdca.org/food-services.

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