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Durfee Students Learn Healthy Habits in the Garden, Classroom, and Cafeteria

Posted by Dr. Janey Thornton, Deputy Under Secretary, Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services in Food and Nutrition
Sep 12, 2014
Dr. Robert Lewis, Director of Nutrition Services, El Monte School District. Photo credit: Jim Newberry
Dr. Robert Lewis, Director of Nutrition Services, El Monte School District. Photo credit: Jim Newberry

Today’s Cafeteria Stories contribution comes from Dr. Robert Lewis of the El Monte School District in Southern California.  Dr. Lewis describes the success that his urban school district has had with school gardening, and how gardening helps to transform the food culture among students who were previously unaware of the origins of food.  His district is making great strides in improving the school nutrition environment, thanks in part to support from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

By: Dr. Robert Lewis, Director of Nutrition Services, El Monte School District

The majority of the more than 1,000 students that attend Durfee School—part of El Monte School District, east of Los Angeles, California—have lived their entire lives in urban neighborhoods without access to farms or fields. It’s ironic that our school is named after James R. Durfee, a rancher and farmer who grew vegetables, grain, walnuts, and fruit. But until several years ago, Durfee students didn’t know where food came from, aside from the supermarket or the corner store.

When we joined the Alliance’s Healthy Schools Program and decided to improve the healthfulness of the food we serve to our students, we started by getting our hands dirty. As the director of nutrition services for El Monte School District I knew that kids are more likely to try new foods if they are involved in the process and learn why it is important. I invited local farmers to school to plant seedlings with the students. Once kids saw how broccoli or red cabbage grows, you can bet they wanted to taste them both in the garden and in the cafeteria.

This is why I believe that schools present such an important opportunity to expose kids to new, healthy foods for the first time. Aside from home, school is where kids spend most of their time.

At Durfee School, we also make every effort to integrate health-promoting messages into our classrooms to ensure kids understand why it’s important to make healthy choices at meal and snack times. The nutrition department works hand-in-hand with teachers across the district to identify lessons that meet Common Core standards and also reinforce healthy behaviors. We believe in teaching kids how to make better choices on their own, especially by building a vibrant, colorful plate at mealtimes.

I am proud that Durfee School, where 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch, is the fourth school in the district to receive the Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s National Healthy Schools Gold Award. The Alliance has been an integral part of our district’s success by providing tools such as the Product Navigator that allows me to find healthy options to put on the menu in a pinch. And since Durfee and other El Monte schools began implementing the Alliance’s competitive food guidelines in 2007, we were way ahead of the game when the USDA’s Smart Snacks in School standards went into effect this summer.

Through partnership with the Alliance, collaboration with faculty and staff, and the engagement of the student body, Durfee School has become a healthier, more positive environment for everyone. Teachers have even noticed that students come to class on time more often now that they start the day with a healthy breakfast at school.

You, too, can start making your school a healthier environment where students can learn, grow, and thrive. Sign up today at

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition