Cafeteria meals in Hemet schools are no longer lumpy mashed potatoes and mystery meat in an even more mysterious sauce.
In fact, the meals are so nutritious, Hemet Unified School District was honored by state and federal officials on Tuesday, May 14, for its high placement in the HealthierUS School Challenge.
Hemet elementary schools earned 13 Gold Awards of Distinction, the highest designation possible, and one silver award.
The USDA challenge, part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign, is a voluntary program established in 2004 to recognize schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program that have created healthier school environments through the promotion of nutrition and physical activity.
Schools are recognized for their efforts to improve the nutritional quality of meals, to provide frequent opportunities for physical education and physical activity and to teach students about good nutrition.
The awards were celebrated at an assembly at Winchester Elementary School that involved district and school administrators, as well as food services workers.
Also on hand were Jesus Mendoza, deputy regional administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service Western Regional Office, and Sandip Kaur, director of nutrition services for the California Department of Education.
Hemet earned more Gold Awards of Distinction than any other school district in California and the fourth most in the nation. Along with certificates from the first lady, each school received $2,000 to be spent on wellness or nutrition programs.
Hemet serves about 23,000 breakfasts and lunches per day. Of its 22,000 students, 70 percent are eligible to receive free or reduced-price meals based on family income.
In addition to improving nutrition, the district has continued to employ physical education teachers at the elementary level. Other districts have eliminated those positions as budgets have gotten tighter in the past five years.
Hemet schools added more fruits, whole grains and vegetables to cafeteria menus before the state mandated those changes in July 2012.
“Our staff has been very creative putting together menus,” Superintendent Barry Kayrell said. “When you eat good, nutritious food, you do well in school.”
Cafeterias have added salad bars and fruits and vegetables are purchased from local growers. Children also learn about various foods that they are allowed to sample.
“It’s good to give kids healthy choices and expose them to different fruits and vegetables,” Winchester Principal Mark Delano said. “It’s interesting to see kids’ reactions to different kinds of foods.”
Follow Craig Shultz on Twitter @PE_CraigShultz and online at blog.pe.com/hemet