Promoting, Providing and Propagating Healthy School Foods: Chico Eat Learn Grow

“We had to use all those words,” Kristen del Real explained to me, “Each one was really important to our mission with this project.”

Eat. Learn. Grow.

Together these words are part directive and part blessing – which in many ways is what Chico. Eat. Learn. Grow. is. A hoped-for directive and a blessing for the Chico area, where del Real and Laurie Niles and others working on the initiative saw a strong “need for our area’s food to be more present in our children’s lives, especially at school” where “if a child is on free or reduced fee lunch, they may eat two to three meals at school,” del Real told me. So if school provided food is not particularly healthful, then those children might never eat healthful food. Photo: Kristen del Real (front), co-coordinator of Chico. Eat. Learn. Grow., introducing Bridgette Brick Wells to a recent presentation on the program ot interested community members.

Del Real is a mother of two, teacher and the Garden Coordinator at Hooker Oak Elementary and she says that she personally has witnessed that “the more the kids are out in the garden growing, harvesting and preparing food from their school garden, the more they recognize those foods when they are with their families and so make this connection between those foods and their own nutrition that they take home to their families. Also, kids who plant and eat foods and like them from the garden, create new patterns in their own lives.”

Chico. Eat. Learn. Grow did not have to look very far for a working model of the idea they had in mind. In 2008, Bridgette Brick Wells founded the start up non-profit organization Healthy Lunch and Lifestyles project in Shasta County. Wells is married to an emergency room doctor “who treats an increasing number of children and adults suffering from diseases directly related to overweight and poor nutrition,” and being the mother of children ranging in age from 21 to 13, these two realities in her life inspired her to found the Healthy Lunch and Lifestyles program. HELP Shasta will be a partner in Chico. Eat. Learn. Grow., del Real said, and Wells will be the Food Service Director for the new healthy lunch program coming into Chico being offered first to the private and charter schools in the area for the 2010/2011 school year. The program produces healthful school lunches in commercial grade kitchens in each of their regions. They use as many whole and unprocessed foods as possible, and as many locally sourced foods as possible and all to National School Lunch standards. Each lunch is about $2.50 (a bargain) and comes each day in re-usable plastic Laptop Lunch Boxes, so that portions are appropriate, consistent and very little waste ensues. All boxes and utensils are collected, sanitized and reused.

Recently I attended a presentation on the Chico. Eat. Learn. Grow. and their partnership with HELP Shasta hosted by del Real and Wells at the Chico Grange. Wells brought with her box lunches from the days offerings at the Shasta schools the program serves and attendees snacked on their school lunch boxes as she and del Real spoke. Laurie Niles, a colleague in Chico. Eat. Learn. Grow. assisted throughout the program. Attendees included staff, administration, parents and a few children as representatives from the Durham school district, the Chico Unified School District Food Service, Blue Oak Charter School, Forest Ranch Charter School, Chico Green School, and Chico Christian School. Lunch box entrees included Peanut Butter and Jelly on whole wheat, turkey and cheese whole-wheat tortilla wraps and chicken/vegetable pasta salad. Side dishes included fresh green salad with dried cranberries and walnuts and ranch dressing in its own container on the side, cut up fruit, and a cupcake with chocolate (maybe carob?) frosting. Just for the record, my 8 year old plowed right through the pasta salad and ate the lettuce from the salad and then downed the cupcake, telling me afterward: “That was one of the best cupcakes I have ever had! It had zucchini in it!!!!” I laughed. I have no idea how good it tasted because she ate it all.

As we all ate, and sometimes shared across the tables so that we all got a taste of different entrees, del Real and Wells talked about how the program(s) got started and where they hope to grow.

Wells comes from a farming family and did her Masters work at UC Berkeley, she told us, where she had the pleasure of working with renowned healthy food and edible school gardens advocate Alice Waters, founder (and author) of the Edible Schoolyard. Waters introduced Wells to the equally renowned Renegade Lunch Lady, Chef Ann Cooper. From their many experiences, Wells said “I have been able to ride the apron strings of what they have learned in their programs.” When starting her work in Shasta County, Wells had initially wanted to begin from the beginning by starting and promoting more school gardens and creating more local farm to school connections because “after all, before you can eat food, you need to grow that food,” but what her region wanted “right now, today, please” was better school lunch choices and opportunities. And over time all three branches of the program have grown along. As of the day of her presentation, the Healthy Lunch and Lifestyles program was providing 300 school lunches a day in Shasta County, the proportion of locally sourced ingredients is at very least about 60% local to 40% commodity-sourced, but “that should only improve in time as the program gains more commercial grade freezer space. More freezers will will allow the group to buy and prepare for instance fresh organic berries in season in the North State and then have access to them in December and January.”

They may server 300 lunches now, but after the presentation I attended, I am guessing that number will double if not triple and include Butte County for the 2010/2011 school year.

As a Garden Coordinator, del Real (and the whole Chico. Eat. Learn. Grow. team) are dedicated to supporting the idea of more farm to school connections and more school garden “classrooms” to get more children involved in knowing how to grow their own food and what food looks like and tastes like in its most “whole” form. ” The best way for home gardeners (or anyone) to get involved del Real tells me is to go to your child’s, grandchild’s or neighborhood elementary, see if they have a garden and offer to help with time talent or money. “Any school would be so thankful to have the help!”

For more information on these programs and how to get involved visit their websites: and

Or contact them by phone or email:
Laurie Niles 530.342.1995
Kristen del Real 530.892.2998

or by snail mail:
Chico Eat Learn Grow
P.O. Box 4079
Chico, CA 95927

Slow Food Shasta Cascade is an integral part of HELP Shasta. In admiration for, celebration and support of Slow Food Shasta Cascade and all it brings to our North State tables, is proud to announce a brand new line of luscious little note cards – bite sized and ready to enjoy at local fine shops near you, including Lyon Books in Chico, Discover Earth in Red Bluff and the Turtle Bay gift shop in Redding, and – of course – at the shop site. These should also be available at most upcoming Slow Food Events. As spring turns to summer and summer to fall, look for Edibles in the Garden blank journals, note cards featuring fruit and nuts and squash, and 2011 calendars. A portion of all sales of the Edibles in the Garden note cards goes to Slow Food Shasta Cascade and the many projects it supports. All of’s cards are printed in Chico by Quadco printing using 100% recycled paper and vegetable-based ink. Yum.

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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