A Spotlight on Healthy Eating Habits, Nutritional Education

Tuesday March 19, 2024

As the saying goes, you are what you eat. In a concerted effort to promote healthier lifestyles and raise awareness about the importance of proper nutrition, March has been designated National Nutrition Month. Rafael Juarez, director of food and nutrition services at the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, says the goal is to inspire people to make informed food choices and develop sound eating and physical activity habits.

“Schools are a great place to instill good habits from an early age,” he said.

Juarez added that Kern school districts have made serious commitments to increase their from-scratch recipes and have enhanced nutrition education and farm to school initiatives.

Jonathan Gallardo with the Blue Zones Project Bakersfield has witnessed progress as well. He is the organization lead for schools and oversees the Blue Zones Schools initiative, which recognizes schools for implementing wellness programs.

McKinley Elementary School became Bakersfield’s first-ever Blue Zones Project approved school last fall. The school added personalized posters to the cafeteria to encourage healthier food choices, maintains a large school garden, and provides a robust nutrition education program, among other wellness initiatives.

McKinley Elementary School’s garden.

Gallardo noted simple shifts in activities can make an impact over time. One example he noted was discontinuing the use of food as a reward.

“By shifting away from the practice of rewarding students with sugary treats or snacks, schools aim to break the cycle of associating food with comfort and instead promote alternative incentives,” he said.

The installation of salad bars in school cafeterias represents a proactive step towards offering students more nutritious dining options as well. 

At Wasco High School, the menu is always evolving, says Food Service Director Jose Quintana Raya.

“We get feedback from the student, and what they like or don’t like on the menu,” he said.

From-scratch cooking has become the norm. The school recently purchased a large charcoal barbecue grill and prepares tri-tips and burgers. They also innovate the ways that students are exposed to healthy fare.

“We entice students to try our salads by adding Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos in place of the croutons,” said Quintana Raya. “The Flamin’ Hot Chicken Salad has become one of our most popular items on the menu.”

Meanwhile, the Standard School District has established a healthy snack program, which introduces students to a wide array of exotic fruits and vegetables.

“By exposing students to unconventional yet nutritious options like pink lemons, dragon fruit, and finger limes, the program not only encourages adventurous eating but also expands their appreciation for wholesome foods,” said Gallardo.

A Wonderful Experience

Before joining Wonderful College Prep Academy (WCPA), Devinder Kumar was the executive chef of Stanford University’s dining program for almost a decade. He is now the senior director of student health and wellness at the academy, which has campuses in Lost Hills and Delano.

“Wonderful’s commitment to health, wellness, nutrition, and community was the reason I moved to the Central Valley,” said Kumar.

Kumar’s vision was to provide multiple food stations centered on health, wellness, and nutrition like a collegiate dining experience, while staying compliant with CDE and USDA guidelines. Harvest Hall is the name of the dining facility on WCPA’s two campuses. It’s a hub of activity that celebrates culture, diversity, and delicious and healthy food.

“The only way to prevent boredom is to create fanfare and a celebration around food and people,” Kumar said. “It’s all about a sense of belonging.”

It started with a district-wide survey. The data was used to provide what students said they wanted.

“We created Latin, global, pasta, and eat your rainbow salad stations,” Kumar said. “The Latin station is among the most popular and unsurprising since most of our scholars are from the Latin American diaspora.”

Students can customize healthy bowls by choosing grains, legumes, vegetables, multiple meat or meat alternative options, and condiments like green and red salsa, guacamole, pico de gallo, pickled onions, and more.

Grab-and-go options are available to accommodate students with hectic schedules. And, an electric food truck runs around campus to provide a second chance for breakfast or a second location for lunch for students who want to stay in the quad with their peers. The Purple Pantry serves about 120 school community members with dietary sensitivities and restrictions.

Students inside Wonderful College Prep Academy’s Harvest Hall.

“We partner with 29 local farmers to showcase their produce,” Kumar said. “We also have a huge learning farm here on campus, and a lot of our produce is featured in our education program.”

Culinary elective classes are offered to high schoolers. At the end of the year, scholars compete to secure the title of Wonderful Top Chef. There are regular guest chef lecturers and learning farm classes for elementary and middle schoolers. Most recently, renowned scientist Dr. Christopher Gardner from the Netflix series “You Are What You Eat: A Twin Experiment” spoke to high school scholars about health, wellness, and myths around diets. 

“We are all for any opportunity to give them knowledge and tools to take with them, either in their careers, homes, or communities,” Kumar said. “If we equip them with tools and enough education to make the right choices, we will see tremendous results in a positive direction.” 

WCPA is committed to investing in professional development as well. Kumar has been instrumental in training other school districts around Kern County and statewide about the value of scratch cooking and highlighting the benefits of sourcing local produce and including it in school meals.

“What we have created is a replicable and scalable school dining model, and it’s for everyone,” Kumar said. “We are always willing to share our lessons and success stories.”

Devinder Kumar presents a cooking demonstration for Kern County school nutrition directors.

By Robert Meszaros

By Robert Meszaros

Rob Meszaros is Director of Communications for the Kern County Superintendent of Schools, where he has served since 2012. In his role, Meszaros oversees media relations, internal and external communication strategies, publications, Marcom, branding, and multi-media content creation. Before joining KCSOS, Meszaros was the PIO for CSU Bakersfield and earlier worked for seven years at The Bakersfield Californian.