Hero: Miguel Villarreal, Food And Nutrition DirectorWed 21 Dec 2011
Story by The Food Revolution Team
Food Revolution Hero
Miguel Villarreal joined Novato Unified School District (NUSD) in 2002 as Nutrition Director having previously worked as a Food Service Director in both Texas and California public schools. Since joining NUSD Miguel has implemented a number of innovative strategies to improve the student’s nutritional health.
As an advocate of locally grown and organic foods, Miguel ensures that school menus offer as much local, organic food as possible. NUSD is purchasing more and more organic each year while phasing out of processed ‘junk’ foods high in fat and sugar, which has led to an overhaul of school menus, so that they now provide much more nutritious options.
Farm To School Program
Miguel collaborates with Marin Organic to promote a farm-to-school program that brings fresh, local produce into his schools, and has introduced a gleaning program in Novato where families can visit their local organic farms and harvest produce that is given to schools or community kitchens. As a strong advocate for educating the community about where their food comes from and how it is grown, Miguel is working on system where buses will pick people up and take them to local farms as a lot of families don’t have the transportation. This year NUSD had their first annual Thanksgiving Harvest gleaning event which involved School Board members, the Superintendent, principals, teachers, parents, students, health organizations, university professors, college students and nurses. Next year they hope to make it even bigger!
Harvest Of The Month
Miguel includes “Harvest of the Month” educational messages on school lunch menus and has provided each elementary school with portable nutrition wellness kits with hands-on education learning tools for use within the classroom. A true believer in health through eating and exercise, Miguel also serves as the District Wellness Coordinator. This role includes collaborating with various groups of students, parents, teachers, school administrators and allied organizations in the community to create systems that educate and connect the 3 C’s: cafeteria, classroom and community.
Chocolate milk was removed from NUSD schools 5 years ago as an early step toward better menus, based on the excess sugar and empty calories that don’t belong in schools. As Miguel states “those grams of sugar add up”. By removing chocolate milk along with sodas, cookies, pastries and juice, Miguel and his team calculate that 400 pounds of sugar has been removed daily from school menus, adding up to over 36 tons of sugar a year!
Although initially milk consumption dropped, it rebounded in a few months, with a small percentage of students opting to drink fresh water (which Novato offers) instead of 1% white milk. Miguel has found that by the time young students get to middle school they are used to only having plain milk or water and were no longer looking for the chocolate milk. Miguel believes that his team is responsible for the well-being of kids at school, and that the commonality of chocolate milk is driven by a business motive: “What’s the best way to sell anything? Add sugar to it!”
Whether it’s plain milk or fresh veggies, Miguel acknowledges that there is a challenge in getting kids to try and like new foods, especially without the sugar. Compared to ‘junk food’ there are limited opportunities to expose kids to new foods at school, so parents too need to get involved, too.
The next big goal for NUSD is to ensure that 40% of entrees are made from scratch and they are working together with the Center for Ecoliteracy to implement their “6 x 5 x 4 model” 6 entrees and 5 taste profiles across 4 seasons. Miguel is also planning to hire a chef – testing them through an ‘Iron Chef’ style competition -- who will then work within the community showing parents what is being served and how to cook healthy food at home. They will also focus on developing the skills of his District culinary staff – although they are already cutting a lot of the fresh produce from farms, Miguel would like to further expand the fresh and scratch-cooked menus in the coming school year.
Read more about Food Revolution Hero Miguel and the NUSD gleaning program.
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