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Serving Up Fresh Options at Durfee

Durfee Elementary School, which lies in El Monte, California in the San Gabriel Valley, east of Los Angeles, is named after James R. Durfee, a hardworking rancher and farmer who grew vegetables, grain, walnuts, and fruit. One hundred and forty years after the birth of its namesake, the school pays homage by serving up fresh foods to its 1,000 students, nearly 90% of whom qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches.

Durfee, which serves students in grades K-8, is the fourth school in El Monte City School District to receive the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s National Healthy School Gold Award. It first achieved Silver-level recognition in 2009, then the school’s administration and staff worked closely with the Alliance’s staff to earn Gold in 2014. “The Alliance’s staff and website served as a continuous resource intricately guiding us through the process in helping us achieve this prestigious title,” said Principal Dianna Mercado.

Making the Healthy Choice the Easy Choice

Behind the scenes, Dr. Robert Lewis, Director of Nutrition Services for the district, is leading the charge to develop Durfee and the rest of the El Monte schools into healthier environments for kids to learn and thrive. “My goal is to help kids and to try to end these dual epidemics of type 2 diabetes and childhood obesity,” said Lewis.

Students at Durfee now receive three healthy meals every day during the school year. The USDA Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program also provides students with a fresh snack daily. To ensure that school meals meet federal nutrition standards, Lewis uses the Alliance’s Product Navigator. “Whenever we were looking for a new fish or a new chicken product, we just check the list to see what is listed and then I call my distributor and see if they carry it. Sure enough, they carry it, so I put it on the menu,” he said.

The USDA’s Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards went into effect July 1 for the 2014–15 school year, requiring schools to offer healthier snacks and drinks in vending machines, school stores, à la carte lines and through fundraising. Lewis isn’t worried about meeting the new standards. “Because we’ve been following the Alliance guidelines since 2007, the new guidelines from the government are a breeze. We don’t really have to think about it,” he said. “Our sodium content is already low because we’re serving fresh fruits and vegetables.” Making things from scratch, such as baking its own sandwich bread, has also helped the school keep sodium at bay.

Getting their Hands Dirty

Students learn about healthy habits outside of the cafeteria at Durfee, too. The school partnered with Amigo de los Rios, a nonprofit organization that works to create sustainable open spaces, to build a walking path on the school’s campus for students, staff, and community members to take physical activity breaks before, during, and after school. The school’s fitness lab is also open to staff at all times, encouraging teachers to demonstrate that physical fitness is a priority.

The nutrition education department works hand-in-hand with classroom teachers to identify lessons that meet Common Core standards and also reinforce healthy choices. That’s why Lewis believes that schools like Durfee are not only providing healthy foods for kids, but are also helping them learn how to make their own healthy choices. “We have to show them at an early age how to make a plate and how to make it look healthy and colorful,” he said.

Staff have learned that when you ask students to be part of the solution, they are more willing to help. To encourage participation, Lewis holds several taste testings each year and organizes food expos at city hall where vendors supply foods that meet the guidelines for students to sample. “We run kids through the food tasting booths and they tell us what they like and that’s what goes on the menu,” said Lewis.

Ninety-seven percent of Durfee’s students are Hispanic and most have lived their whole lives in urban neighborhoods without access to farms, groves, or orchards. To teach students about where food comes from, Lewis also invites local farmers to school and encourages kids to get their hands dirty. “Once kids see where broccoli or red cabbage grows, they enjoy it, they eat it.”

Preparing the Next, Healthier Generation

Over the last five years, staff at Durfee School have seem many positive outcomes as a result of the school’s focus on health. “Our language, our insight, and our overall wellbeing have increased significantly since we began our journey," said Principal Mercado.

Students at Durfee are not just tolerant of the school’s healthier options, they’re downright enthusiastic about them. “Our nutrition department can tell you story after story about how kids write to us and tell us what they want—they want salad bars, organic food, things that look healthy. And we give it to them!”

Attendance has also improved since the school implemented its universal free breakfast program. “What we can see statistically is that kids are coming to school on time and that they have better attendance. I know it’s due to breakfast because we serve breakfast at 8:00 a.m.,” said Lewis.

Despite the success Durfee has achieved, Lewis cautions that his work is not done. “What I tell people is that there is always another generation of kids coming up through the ranks. You may think that you’ve done a great job—and maybe you have —but there’s a whole set of kids coming along right on the heels that have never heard this message before,” he said. “It’s important to keep it new and fresh and find out what the new group of kids is excited about.”

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