Coachella Valley USD School Meals Innovator
Wins “Health Happens Hero” Award from The California Endowment
Maria Estrada among Eight Californians Recognized for Bringing Healthier Meals to Students
Thermal, CA –The California Endowment announced today that it has awarded a “Health Happens Hero” award to Coachella Valley Unified School District Director of Nutrition Services Maria Estrada, honoring her commitment to serving Coachella Valley’s students the healthy and nutritious meals they need to succeed. Estrada is responsible for serving more than 18,000 meals per day.
Coachella Valley has long been recognized as a school meals innovator and a model for other districts. The district has been ahead of the curve in integrating healthy and nutritious options in school meals and has been actively working to augment its already robust nutrition program. Coachella Valley Unified has a full salad bar in every school and offers students an array of colorful fruits and vegetables they may not have access to at home, including fresh romaine lettuce, spinach, mango, pineapple, and kiwi. The district also implemented a supper program to feed students attending afterschool programs.
As the district updates its menu, they listen to feedback from students and adjust accordingly. As a result, the district offers menu options that appeal to the tastes of local students, including beef tamales, teriyaki chicken with broccoli bowls, and low-fat enchiladas.
“During National School Lunch Week, we honor champions who understand that healthy meals lead to healthy kids and improved performance in the classroom. These are true heroes, proving every day that California schools can serve their students delicious, nutritious, and reasonably priced school meals. They are the reason we say, ‘Health Happens in Schools,’” said Dr. Robert K. Ross, president & CEO of The California Endowment.
School food menus in Coachella Valley and throughout the nation were overhauled this year to meet updated nutrition guidelines developed by experts at the Institute of Medicine and United States Department of Agriculture. The new guidelines include:
- Increased produce options, ensuring that students receive both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;
- A ban on unhealthy trans fats;
- Portion size guidelines and calorie limits based on the age of children served;
- Increased emphasis on whole grain products;
- Limits on the types of milk served, with an emphasis on low-fat (1%) and non-fat varieties; and
- Reductions in sodium levels to be phased in over several years.
“At Coachella Valley Unified, we strive to provide our students healthy, nutritious, and delicious meal options in creative ways,” said Estrada. “Our primary focus is to provide quality and nutritious meals for our students throughout our school district. We will continue to work with administration, our students, parents, community members, and organizations such as Consejo de Federaciones Mexicanas en Norteamérica (COFEM), Project Lean, UC Davis Extension, and The California Endowment to meet the health needs of our students. Together, as a team, we prepare students to live, work, and thrive in a highly connected world.”
Other “Health Happens Hero” award winners announced this week include Arvin Union Superintendent Michelle McLean, Escondido Unified High School District Nutrition Services Director Pamela Lambert, Los Angeles Unified Interim Food Services Director David Binkle, and Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Anthony “Tony” Smith, and Sacramento City Unified School District Nutrition Services Manager Brenda Padilla. California Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson also received awards for their statewide leadership.
In addition to recognizing outstanding leaders during National School Lunch Week, The California Endowment encourages parents to learn if their children qualify for free and reduced price school meals. Families with incomes up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level may qualify (approximately $42,000 for a family of four). An estimated 249,000 Riverside County students qualify for free or reduced price lunches, but many are not participating in the program. Increasing participation is a critical goal because school meal programs provide food to lower-income students who face food insecurity or lack access to adequate nutrition. Parents can also contact their child’s school to see if they qualify.
The California Endowment counts Coachella Valley among its 14 Building Healthy Communities (BHC) sites. BHC is a 10-year, $1 billion program of The California Endowment working to make health happen by prioritizing preventive health practices and raising the physical environment and socioeconomic conditions of the schools and neighborhoods. Together with coalitions of residents, youth, community-based organizations, business, law enforcement, schools, and other community leaders, the initiative seeks to address the root cause of ill health through policy and systems change.
The California Endowment is a private, statewide health foundation, which was established in 1996 to expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities, and to promote fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians. Headquartered in downtown Los Angeles, The Endowment has regional offices in Sacramento, Oakland, Fresno, and San Diego, with program staff working throughout the state. The Endowment challenges the conventional wisdom that medical settings and individual choices are solely responsible for people's health. The Endowment believes that health happens in neighborhoods, schools, and with prevention. For more information, visit The Endowment’s homepage at www.calendow.org.