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New signs highlight an array of fresh produce at the Los Compadres Market and Restaurant. HEAC staff built a relationship with the owner over three years.

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Chula Vista School Cafeterias

A Chula Vista School District Reinvents the School Cafeteria, Improving Students' Health While Increasing Revenue

Chula Vista is the second-largest city in San Diego County, after the city of San Diego itself, its larger and more affluent neighbor to the north. About half of Chula Vista's residents are Latino, a population at disproportionately high risk for obesity and chronic diseases such as diabetes. Chula Vista's Sweetwater Union High School District has tackled the obesity problem head-on, through an ambitious combination of changes to its food service program and its physical education curriculum.

In 2006, Sweetwater schools adopted a wellness policy that included a ban on junk food, candy, and soft drinks on school campuses, the introduction of healthy new menus in school cafeterias, and a transformation of the physical education curriculum. Healthy Eating, Active Communities, a statewide initiative funded by The California Endowment, has supported these and other efforts to reduce risk factors.

"It's not only what you serve, but how you serve it," says Nancy Stewart, food services director for Sweetwater Union High School District, who spearheaded the food service changes at six schools including Otay Ranch High cafeteria where the program was first piloted. Her successful innovations include healthier menu offerings along with livelier, more appealing service areas such as food courts and outdoor cafés.

"Most school districts place a higher value on the academic side and have less respect for the operations side," says Stewart, a veteran of the restaurant industry who has also worked as a teacher. "What the HEAC partnership did for me was give me a voice coming from the academic side, with compelling research showing that our kids are going to learn better if they eat better and are healthier."

When she first began working on food service changes with school administrators and HEAC representatives, Stewart expected they would act like "nutrition police" and simply tell her to "stop feeding the kids fat." She was pleasantly surprised to find that, on the contrary, they looked to her for business and marketing expertise and were able to develop a truly collaborative relationship. "You know how to get the kids' interest," they told her, "and you know how to innovate."

"I think fast food is fabulous," Stewart says without irony, adding, "if what that means is getting a thousand people fed quickly. The problem is that schools too often rely on processed and prepackaged foods to achieve that goal." She explains that serving pre-packaged foods shifts liability for food safety from the schools to the manufacturer.

Recognizing that concern for food safety is one of the major barriers to serving more fresh fruits and vegetables in school settings, Stewart made it a centerpiece of her efforts. "I just started doing what I know how to do," she says. "I made sure I had everything in place in terms of sanitation, and I trained my staff to follow the same procedures as in a restaurant, maximizing efficiency and minimizing waste. Food safety is a science, and we take great steps to ensure the safety of the food supply."

But how does she get children to eat all those fruits and vegetables? "We created bright, attractive food courts with appetizing menu items that we branded and promoted," says Stewart, reeling off some of students' favorites such as Dr. Smoothie Ph.D. 100 percent fruit and dairy drinks, The Dean of Greens soup and salad bar, The Pizza Master, and Professor Java and Co.—all of which were developed with systematic input from student leaders in the Associated Student Body (ASB). In fact, the ASB went from cafeteria competitor, for years selling high-calorie snack and soft drinks to raise funds for student activities, to enthusiastic collaborator, now helping to staff and promote the cafeteria while student organizations share in its profits.

"The district was ready for sweeping change both in terms of the business model and in terms of a community health model," Stewart says, noting that a high percentage of school food service departments nationally lose money, while in Sweetwater schools, sales are up on each of the six campuses where food courts have been fully implemented with help from cafeteria modernization funding, and branded items are being rolled out in all 24 district schools. "I've shown that we can have fun, feed the kids, and make money for the school district. In fact we've been so successful, we are now looking at making changes at schools that are not budgeted for modernization, by drawing on our own revenue."

Stewart has been invited to speak at a national obesity conference and with other schools about adopting the kinds of changes that have worked so well at Sweetwater. Coupled with an award-winning new approach to the physical education curriculum—replacing the traditional emphasis on team sports, athletic ability, and competition with a focus on personal health and fitness goals—the food service innovations have raised not only students' nutritional awareness but also their state-mandated Fitnessgram scores. From 2008 to 2009, ninth-graders' pass rates on the Fitnessgram tests jumped more than 20 points, from 58 percent to 79 percent. Those who do not pass are automatically enrolled in a more intensive, highly individualized tenth-grade "Fit for Life" physical education program that also includes nutrition education.

"We recognize that schools can play a critical role in curbing the epidemic of weight gain that can lead to diabetes," says school district superintendent Dr. Jesus Gandara. "Sweetwater students are making the connection between healthy eating, daily exercise, and improved fitness."

For more information:

Learn about the community of Chula Vista.

Nancy Stewart, Director, Food Services, Sweetwater Union High School District, (619) 585-4407,

Lillian E. Leopold, APR, Director, Grants and Communications, Sweetwater Union HiChulaVista_SchoolCafeterias.pdfgh School District, (619) 691-5578,

Watch these videos on the Sweetwater Video Newsroom:

Reinventing the School Cafeteria (4:26 minutes)

Surf's Up Café (2:57 minutes)