How To Make Kids Love Their Veggies

Miguel Villarreal’s Passion for Gleaning Blazes the Path

Miguel Villarreal holds a box of tomatoes that will be the next day's lunch for these lucky students who helped glean the vegetables. Their classmates benefit as well from the local organic goodness.

Now in his ninth year as Food Services Director at Novato Unified School District, Miguel Villarreal muses about the kids under his watch. The students who were first graders when he started are now high school students with one big advantage over many of their peers.

These kids never had candy and soda at school. Miguel got rid of that junk food right away. He has also phased out red meat, and believes Novato Unified is the only school district in the country that does not serve it. Instead, Novato students have nourished their growing minds and bodies with the best food a school district’s budget can be stretched to cover.

Over time, Miguel has found more innovative ways to get fresh, local, organic fruits and vegetables into school lunches in Novato, a Marin County town about 35 miles north of San Francisco. For the last five years, he has cooperated with Marin Organic, a local nonprofit, in the “Farm to School” initiative.

Partnering with local farmers to glean their fields after the commercial harvest is the heart of this initiative. While community volunteers and teachers are welcome partners in gleaning, the students and their families actually bring in much of the leftover crop, which can total 20% of what the farmer produced.

Miguel’s enthusiasm for “Farm to School” is rooted in its impressive benefits. The students lunch on fresh, local, organic produce such as spinach, tomatoes, and potatoes. Children and their families enjoy quality time together in the fields while learning where

Miguel and students work together to glean healthy vegetables. The kids benefit from local organic food and time in green spaces.Miguel is at the end on the right.

food comes from.

Farmers have the satisfaction of teaching neighbors about farming and seeing their crops eaten instead of wastefully rotting. Produce the schools cannot use goes to a food bank to help the hungry. Knowing this, the volunteers earn a well-deserved sense of achievement.

Local, organic produce tastes great. Kids are more open to eating this food because they participated in getting it. They share what they learned on the farm with classmates. The schools may let the students take some of the produce home and work with their parents to prepare it. After, the children share the recipes they used with their class mates, and everyone gets inspiration to cook healthy food. What a contrast to processed, nutritionally-deficient dinners.

Getting kids to love their veggies starts with giving them healthy choices, getting rid of junk snacks and drinks, getting them involved in growing and preparing their own food, having a consistent set of choices over time, and setting a healthy example. Most Novato parents recognize and appreciate Miguel’s policies. Hopefully they are inspired to build on it and offer more fresh, local, organic produce at home.

Miguel continues to work with other school districts and the community to expand the gleaning program. For example, he recently obtained funding to use school buses to bring volunteers to the fields every Monday afternoon, since transportation was an issue for some. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes his efforts, recently recognizing Novato Unified as one of the top three districts in California with outstanding results with “Farm to School.”

Other local businesses that offer healthy foods benefit from partnering with Novato Unified. For example, Miguel gets reduced rates on locally-made burritos, filled with fresh rice and beans, in exchange for giving the restaurant that makes them publicity with students and their parents.

While working so hard for the students, Miguel has boosted his own health as well. Three years ago he read The China Study by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. The depth of scientific evidence for the health benefits of a plant-based diet appealed to his background as a nutrition major in college.

So Miguel decided to chuck all animal foods. While eating meat and dairy, Miguel observed he had plenty of energy, but also a plethora of digestive system problems such as indigestion, heartburn, and acid reflux. Once he went 100% plant-based, his digestive problems vanished. He also became less susceptible to colds and flu – welcome for anyone who works around kids frequently.

Before he changed his diet, Miguel had tried many times to complete an ultra-cycle event. These grueling bike rides are timed and stretch for 200 miles. Miguel could never go the entire distance. At 120 to 130 miles his body would cramp up and he’d have to stop. He gave up on his dream of being an ultra-cyclist.

About 6 months after he stopped eating all animal foods, he decided to enter another ultra-cycle event. He never expected the change in diet would make a difference. In fact, he never even thought about it.

Miguel was delighted to finish all 200 miles with no cramping and enough energy left over to drive himself home. Still, it took a comment from a friend to make him realize his diet has made the difference. Since then, Miguel has completed several ultra-cycle events with no cramping. He credits his animal-free diet for his athletic success.

Ultra-cycling and feeding kids well on the minimal budget that school districts have to work with are both super challenges. Fueled by plants, Miguel is up to both. He views obstacles and barriers as “just another fence to climb.” Let’s work with him to give our kids the great food and health they deserve.

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Blog posting by Janice Stanger, Ph.D. Janice authored The Perfect Formula Diet, the smart person’s nutrition book built on sustainable food choices. Enjoy six kinds of whole foods for permanent, hunger-free weight loss and health.

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