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Nutrition, Mental Health Draw School Board’s Attention

Children’s wellness — both emotional and physical — was a main topic of discussion at the Santa Clara school board’s last meeting.

At its meeting Thursday, the board heard presentations from Karen Luna, child nutrition director, and Ben Gonzales, coordinator for health and wellness. Luna’s presentation updated the board on how the school is striving to improve the quality of the cafeteria food available to children. Gonzales implored the board to approve expanding his department.

Luna said nutrition services continues to work on providing locally grown produce such as tomatoes from Martial Cottle Farm or kale from Sutter, as well as foods with minimal processing. The department is partnering with the University of California in conducting taste tests to determine what kids like and tailor menus accordingly, she said.

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“One of our biggest challenges is getting them to try (new food),” she said. “If they don’t eat it, it isn’t nutritious.”

Another issue the department is dealing with is a policy regarding students’ past due accounts. Luna said the department needs to reach out to parents to give them a clear sense of what will happen if they do not pay their children’s account. It puts the school in an awkward position, she added.

Board members Noelani Sallings, Jim Canova and Andrew Ratterman all commented on the topic. They all said it is unfair to feed kids different meals because their account is past due. Sallings said the meals kids get at school may be the only meal they get all day, and they need food that will “get their brain going.”

“If it is a choice between giving kids inferior food and balancing the books, we need to have a discussion before that happens,” Ratterman said.

During the board’s planning items, Health Coordinator Gonzales spoke, imploring the board to consider another aspect of students’ health: their mental health. He asked the board to dedicate more resources to the school’s mental health initiative. Although schools are not intended to be mental health care providers, counselors are seeing an increase in mood disorders and substance abuse, he said.

These problems, he said, lead to higher suspension and expulsion rates and manifest in an inability to focus, he added.

“We are dealing with a youth population that are stressed out dealing with stuff I know I never had to deal with as a youth,” Gonzales said. “What see see in terms of behavior is the fever. That is not the virus … we want to move beyond the fever and get to the virus.”

Gonzales detailed why, in his view, the district should increase services by four days at the elementary level, nine days at the middle school level and by 14 days at the high school level, which would include a wellness coordinator, counseling services and community outreach coordinator every day of the week.

Further, he said it would be beneficial to raise intern wages from $15 an hour to $25 an hour to compete with the private sector Currently, he said, the department is unable to keep up with the demand for specialized service, and a large part of that has to do with the department’s inability to retain employees.

“If there is a guy that is really good at dealing with a broken car, that is great, but I wouldn’t ask him to fix my broken arm,” he said.

While Gonzalez didn’t have figures about the cost of putting his plan into action, Sallings said she like the idea that the district views itself as poised to help with these problems. Trustee Christopher Stampolis said he believes the community actively wants to spend money to ensure programs like the wellness program are fully staffed.

Sallings said the cultural aspect is also an important one when engaging parents, adding that mental health issues are viewed differently in different cultures and that it is important that “the people giving these presentations look like them.”

Student representative Samia Abassi said this issue is an important one. All students have a need at some point to speak to a mental health professional.

“As a student, there are many nuances that we deal with,” she said. “There is a saying: You have three categories — academics, social life and sleep. Pick two. Being able to talk to someone is so important.”

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