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October 13, 2011 (San Diego) - Today, The California Endowment announced the first six ‘Health Happens Heroes’ award recipients honoring school food and nutrition directors from across the state who are pioneers in making healthier school meals that kids want to eat.  The awards coincide with National School Lunch Week (Oct 10-14), a time to raise awareness about how healthy school meals contribute to the well-being and academic achievement of children.

The California Endowment praised the work of
 GARY PETILL, Nutrition Services Director for the San Diego Unified School District, for working to improve healthy eating habits by offering more fruits and vegetables and implementing lunchroom salad bars featuring local and organic produce in every K-12 school in the district.  

“We need to create good eating habits for students and their families,” Petill told the San Diego Union Tribune.  “That's why every elementary school has a salad bar and more middle and high schools will offer them this year, too. We need to do even more education for students, teaching them why carrots are healthy.”

Every year, 900 million meals are served to students in California schools. With families struggling to make ends meet during the economic recession, more children than ever depend on school meals for their daily nutrition. In California, 55.9% of students are eligible for free or reduced school lunches, according to the web site

In San Diego County, according to
 Children Now California Scorecard, nearly one in every three students (30%) are in an unhealthy weight zone and innovators like Petill are trying to change that.

“We’re proud to give Health Happens Heroes awards to leaders who ‘walk the walk’ to improve health in our schools, neighborhoods and with prevention” said Robert K. Ross, M.D. CEO of The California Endowment. “Today we honor school district innovators who understand the important role that good nutrition plays in the fitness and academic success of California’s children.  These pioneers are embracing and defending new federal standards for healthier school meals and offering kids great-tasting healthy food that they can’t wait to eat.”

In 2010, President Obama signed the
 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act establishing new healthier standards for school meals that include increasing fruits and vegetables, increasing whole grains and low-fat dairy, and reducing sodium, unhealthy trans- and saturated fats, and calories.   These new standards enjoy broad public support, with more than three out of four American voters—78 percent—believing that schools should be required to meet higher nutrition standards for all foods they serve or sell to students, and 61 percent support providing schools with more funding to meet those standards, according to a 2011 poll conducted by the bipartisan team of Hart Research and American Viewpoint.

“Through promoting healthier school meals for more California children, we can help reduce childhood obesity and improve academic performance,”
 said Dr. Ross. “When schools are healthier, kids are healthier and more successful in school.  This is the right thing to do for our children, our schools and our communities.”

Other Health Happens Heroes include nutrition innovators from around the state:
 DENNIS BARRETT, Food Service Director for Los Angeles Unified School District;JENNIFER LeBARRE, Director of Nutrition Services for Oakland Unified School District; DENISE OHM, Director of Nutrition Services for Enterprise Elementary School District; ROBERT SCHRAM, Director of Food Services for Clovis Unified School District; and RODNEY TAYLOR, Student Nutrition Director for Riverside Unified School District.

The California Endowment will announce new awardees throughout the year.  Health Happens Heroes receive a certificate honoring their work and $500 to be donated in their name to the California health-related charity of their choice.

Gary Petill’s work has also been praised by proud California Endowment partner The Jamie Oliver’s Food Foundation HERE: