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 Sodium Reduction in San Diego School Meals

​More than 90 percent of U.S. children between ages 6-18 years eat more sodium than recommended, putting them at risk for developing high blood pressure and heart disease later in life, according to a recent report issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The CDC reports that most of the sodium we consume is in the form of salt, and the vast majority of sodium we consume is in processed foods. Too much sodium is bad for your health. It can increase your blood pressure and your risk for a heart attack and stroke.

Using data from the CDC's 2009-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, CDC researchers determined that about 43 percent of sodium eaten by children comes from the 10 foods they eat most often: pizza, bread and rolls, cold cuts/cured meats, savory snacks, sandwiches, cheese, chicken patties/nuggets/tenders, pasta mixed dishes, Mexican mixed dishes and soups.

Such foods were traditionally found in school meals, but programs in place across the country are starting to change the way food is purchased and served in schools.

In San Diego County, efforts teaming the San Diego Unified School District Food Services department and the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA) have significantly reduced the amount of sodium found in school meals.

Under Healthy Works, an initiative of HHSA under Live Well San Diego, and through a Community Transformation ​Grant funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, programs were established to make it easier for schools in the district to purchase, prepare and serve whole foods lower in sodium. 

By placing an emphasis on buying whole foods that are not pre-processed, and working with food suppliers on the highest quality foods, the food that San Diego Unified students eat at school every day contains less sodium.  Providing easier access to healthy choices is part of the larger Live Well San Diego strategic vision for healthy, safe and thriving communities. 

A major factor in this progress is that San Diego Unified is procuring more food from local farms for use in school meal programs. Under Healthy Works, the establishment of an innovative procurement policy has enabled the district to serve the most healthful, locally grown food by having fewer restrictions on where the district can purchase food. The district is able to go directly to the source of local food more often than in the past.

Through this innovative protocol, San Diego Unified has implemented procedures that bring healthy, local food to our students every day.

San Diego Unified has emerged as a leader in farm-to-school programs, including its successful Harvest of the Month program, which introduces a different vegetable or fruit grown by a local farmer each month.

In addition to enjoying the healthy food, students are taught in the classroom setting about the food's nutritional value, as well as the important role farmers play in the community. Students learn that food grown locally is fresher and higher in nutritional value.

Another program established by the district enabled its food services department to source healthy, organic, free-range chicken from Mary's Farm, and cook and serve the chicken in the district's own school kitchens. The arrangement means students are eating healthier food lower in sodium and other harmful additives.

San Diego Unified enabled parents to stay aware of the district's efforts around healthy food by building a healthy food and menu app so that parents can access information about their child's school day nutrition.

The results of lowering sodium in meals served within the district are clear. Sodium in San Diego Unified's breakfast-in-the-classroom program was reduced by 22 percent, and sodium in elementary school lunch menus was reduced by up to 47 percent.

"The efforts by San Diego Unified to reduce sodium and bring local food to schools for students to eat every day have been tremendous," said Naomi Billups, nutrition manager for the County of San Diego Health and Human Services Agency. "They have become national leaders in these efforts, and because of that, students are eating healthier and learning lifelong healthy eating habits."