The Napa High School cafeteria filled up quickly during Tuesday’s midmorning break, with students forming long lines to pick up bagels, burritos and other snacks. But to move forward in line, students were required to pick one additional thing for their plates: a piece of fruit.
“It’s not the cafeteria of five years ago,” Napa High School Principal Barb Franco said.
Napa High is complying with new nutrition standards that went into effect July 1 of last year, due to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, championed by first lady Michelle Obama.
One of the main goals of the new nutrition standards is to curb obesity among children nationwide. The standards increase portion sizes of fruits and vegetables, as well as limiting sodium and fat.
At both Napa and Vintage high schools, daily lunch specials include teriyaki chicken with brown rice, salads tossed to order, sandwiches and wraps, and pizza made with 100 percent whole-grain crust and low-fat mozzarella cheese. Students must also grab a piece of fruit —an apple, orange or pear, for example — before they pick up their meal.
As tasty as the menu may sound, there are relatively few student takers. Napa High has more than 1,800 students enrolled this year, but only 275 to 300 students eat lunch from the cafeteria each day.
While nutrition standards have improved, students’ attitudes toward cafeteria food remain largely unchanged. If students aren’t eating from the cafeteria, they’re either packing their own lunch or leaving campus to purchase food that’s low-cost and quick.
Ten minutes into the Napa High lunchtime, the line at Burger King, three blocks from campus, was stretched to the front door with students ready to order burgers, fries and chicken strips. A couple of kids waited in line eating ice cream.
Napa High student Casey Freitas, 15, was not among them. Casey said he typically stays on campus for football team meetings and tries not to eat from the cafeteria. He packs his own peanut butter sandwich, apple and chips.
The cafeteria food is “nasty,” Casey said.
His friend, Luis Barrara, offered a more qualified assessment. “It’s not that bad. It’s kind of nasty at times,” he said. “I always get the nachos.”
Luis, 15, said he prefers leaving campus for lunch. Where he goes depends on where his friends go. Usually the group eats at China House, at Jefferson Street and Pueblo Avenue.
Napa High does not allow freshmen to leave campus for lunch, but students in grades 10, 11 and 12 can leave if they have parental permission. The high school is within short walking distance to McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell, as well as several different pizza places.
Vintage High is similar to Napa in that students in grades 10, 11 and 12 may leave campus for lunch with parental permission. Freshmen must remain on campus.
About 1,775 students are attending Vintage this year, and about 630 students have permission to leave at lunch, according to school officials.
Unlike Napa High, Vintage is at least a mile away from most fast-food restaurants. The majority of students who leave campus have to drive to get food.
The necessity of having a license and a car is what keeps Vintage student Dahlen Benere, 16, from going out to eat. Instead, he packs his own lunch — usually a peanut butter sandwich.
Vintage student Rachael Bergman, 16, “almost always” leaves for lunch. She and her friends drive to Silverado Plaza, where they can get anything from sandwiches at Nob Hill Foods to pizza at the New York Pizza Kitchen.
Making good choices
Nearly 45 percent of overweight or obese children ages 10 to 17 are from low-income households, according to the Children’s Defense Fund website.
“Only one in five high school children eats the five recommended servings of fruits and vegetables a day, and fast food consumption has increased fivefold among children since 1970,” according to the website.
Students who are income eligible may sign up for free and reduced-price meals. At Napa High, about 800 students are signed up — which is approximately 500 more kids than the cafeteria feeds at lunch on a daily basis.
When schools are within a half-mile of fast food, students consume fewer servings of fruits and vegetables, drink more soda and are more likely to be overweight, according to a study co-authored by Brennan Davis, assistant professor of marketing at Baylor University.
In a separate study, Davis also found that youths who are more social were more likely to eat at fast-food restaurants near school. Less social kids “were relatively immune to nearby fast food,” according to a Baylor University news release.
Davis said in an interview that social kids typically want to go to places where they can be around their peers.
And even if a fast-food restaurant offers healthy choices — like salads — it makes little difference when that restaurant is best known for its french fries and hamburgers. A teenager — especially in a group — doesn’t want to “stick out” by ordering a salad, Davis said. At that age, kids are more concerned about the “social implications of their decisions,” he said.
Vintage High Principal Mike Pearson said he believes, however, that times may be changing, as more students are educated about nutrition. Students understand what’s healthy and not healthy, Pearson said.
Franco from Napa High agreed that kids deserve more credit.
“Kids, on the whole, are doing a pretty good job of making good food choices,” Franco said.
Franco said the schools have worked hard to educate students about the importance of healthy nutrition. She said the elimination of snack and candy machines — which were taken out four or five years ago — has also helped.
“We had chips, candy, soda — you name it, we had it. We had it all,” she said.
Now, candies and other sweets can’t even be sold for fundraisers — unless it takes place after school.
At Napa High, about 53 percent of ninth-grade students are considered to be at a healthy weight, according to physical fitness test results from 2011-12. At Vintage, the number of ninth-graders at healthy weight was close to 58 percent. The state average for ninth-grade students in 2011-12 was 59 percent.
Napa High students Emma Arreguin and Nancy Morales, both 17, said they try to make healthy food choices, but it’s difficult when they’re surrounded by unhealthy options. The cafeteria food, they said, doesn’t seem much healthier than the options off campus — but at least the food from restaurants tastes better.
While the schools are stepping up their educational efforts and have upgraded cafeteria menus, the choice of what to eat is still left to the kids. And while many students are opting for healthier food, plenty of others leave campus, where healthy options are limited.
Franco takes it all in stride. When she sees students returning from lunch with large sodas, it bothers her — but she mostly shrugs it off.
“It is what it is,” Franco said. “You know what? They’re high school kids.”