On the 30th anniversary of the Santa Clarita Valley Food Service Agency, the organization that provides meals to students across four school districts has changed names and appointed new CEO Robert Lewis.
Now known as School Day Cafe, the agency is dedicated to serving more than 24,000 children across 38 schools in the Castaic Union, Newhall, Saugus Union and Sulphur Springs Union school districts.
“Our mission is not only to feed children delicious meals,” said Lewis, “but we also want to feed them nutritious foods, as well.”
Previously the director of nutrition services for El Monte City School District, Lewis stepped into the new role as CEO after his predecessor, Lynnelle Grumbles, retired after five years with the agency.
Lewis, along with Jane Crawford, director of the child nutrition program, said their main focus is to counter the increasing rate of childhood obesity and provide a better understanding to children about why eating healthy is important.
Obesity affects more than 13 million children and adolescents aged 2 to 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control. “At this rate, one in two adults will be diabetic in the near future,” Lewis said.
Lewis and Crawford said they conduct “taste tests” with children to see which option is most favorable. For example, multiple versions of a chocolate chip cookie made with whole grain were baked, and children decided which one tasted best.
Among the students’ favorite meals are pork carnitas tacos, chicken and cheese quesadillas, orange chicken and pizza.
“Everything we make is 100% whole grain and low fat,” said Lewis while standing next to a platter of grilled cheeses made with low-fat cheese and whole grain bread. “I’ve been asked if we’ll ever go back to serving white bread and white rice, but the answer will always be, ‘No.’”
Produce and salad bars, which are offered at the agency, are one of the ways to encourage healthy eating in children. “They tell us it’s just like going to a buffet or a restaurant with their family,” said Lewis.
In order to provide fresh produce, Crawford said the agency brings in local-grown fruits and vegetables, which Lewis added is also more sustainable. He said that, while also making these changes to school meals, they can support the local economy.
The agency also keeps up with culinary trends and is working to bring in more ethnic food to school lunches.
“The kids here grow up right next to Los Angeles and have a pretty wide culinary palette,” said Lewis. “We want them to eat the same food they have at home.”
Lewis said he travels to Washington, D.C., and Sacramento a few times each year to advocate for better child nutrition. He explained how his mother died from type II diabetes, and his focus was childhood obesity when going getting his master’s and doctorate degrees.
“This isn’t just about serving meals, this is about educating about the dangers poor eating habits have,” said Lewis.
Along with advocating for nutritious school lunches, Lewis is involved with the No Kid Hungry organization, which aims to solve childhood hunger across the country.
School Day Cafe offers four programs, outside of the standard breakfast and lunch programs, which feed children during the summer, during after-school programs, preschoolers and dinner programs.
“We know that sometimes a school lunch is the only meal some kids will have,” said Lewis. “If they didn’t have this meal, I don’t know if some of these kids would eat throughout the day.”
The agency also partakes in community outreach events that teach children and parents about nutrition, while also giving children a chance to cook their own meals.
“The idea of sitting at a table as a family to eat dinner has been lost,” said Crawford. “When kids learn how to make their own meals, it opens a whole new world and they go home excited to show their parents what they learned.”
As Lewis begins his new role with the agency, he said he is glad to be a part of it and is excited to see what lies ahead.