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Secretary Ross Among “Health Happens Hero” Award Recipients

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross is among eight individuals recognized by the California Endowment as a “Health Happens Hero” for her work in promoting the use of California Grown products in school meals.  Connecting farms-to-schools, improving the nutritional health of school children, and reconnecting communities with their local farmers are opportunities the Secretary continues to explore.

The California Endowment Issues Eight “Health Happens Hero” Awards to California School Nutrition Innovators

Health happens hereSacramento, CA –The California Endowment has announced that it has presented “Health Happens Hero” awards to eight California nutrition innovators, honoring their outstanding work to deliver healthy and tasty school meals to California students. Awardees include four school district nutrition directors, two district superintendents, and two state officials.

The award winners are Arvin Union Superintendent Michelle McLean, California Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, Coachella Valley Unified Nutrition Services Director Maria Estrada, Escondido Unified High School District Nutrition Services Director Pamela Lambert, Los Angeles Unified Interim Food Services Director David Binkle, Oakland Unified School District Superintendent Anthony “Tony” Smith, Sacramento City Nutrition Services Manager Brenda Padilla, and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

Each year, California schools serve more than 900 million meals to local students—each one an opportunity to teach children the lifelong benefits of healthy eating and provide them with the nutrition they need to focus in class and succeed in school. School meals in California and throughout the nation were overhauled this year to meet updated nutrition guidelines developed by experts at the Institute of Medicine and the United States Department of Agriculture.

Surveys released yesterday by The California Endowment showed that California students and parents overwhelmingly support the new standards. The polls also reported that students and parents believe that school lunches are getting better. Students who say lunches are better this year outnumber those who think they’re getting worse by more than a 3-to-1 ratio.

The new guidelines include:

  • Increased produce options, ensuring that students receive both fruits and vegetables every day of the week;
  • A ban on unhealthy trans fats;
  • Portion size guidelines and calorie limits based on the age of children served;
  • Increased emphasis on whole grain products;
  • Limits on the types of milk served, with an emphasis on low-fat (1%) and non-fat varieties; and
  • Reductions in sodium levels to be phased in over several years.

“During National School Lunch Week, we honor champions who understand that healthy meals lead to healthy kids and improved performance in the classroom. These are true heroes, proving every day that California schools can serve their students delicious, nutritious, and reasonably priced school meals. They are the reason we say, ‘Health Happens in Schools,’” said Dr. Robert K. Ross, president & CEO of The California Endowment.

More information on the “Health Happens Heroes” awardees:

  • David Binkle, Interim Food Services Director for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Binkle was honored for his persistence in advocating for healthy meals on such a large scale. “We always keep moving forward, because the health of our children is at stake. Healthy meals mean healthy kids, who are well-nourished and able to achieve in school and in life,” he said.
  • Maria Estrada, Director of Nutrition Services for the Coachella Valley Unified School District. Estrada was honored for her efforts to increase access to fresh produce and implement a new supper program. “We strive to provide our students healthy, nutritious, and delicious meal options in creative ways. Together, as a team, we prepare students to live, work, and thrive in a highly connected world,” she said.
  • Pamela Lambert, Nutrition Services Director at Escondido Union High School District. Lambert was honored for demonstrating the cost-effectiveness of “scratch” cooking. “It’s a fact: serving fresh, healthy meals saves schools money. It reduces costs and results in a healthier, better-tasting product for our students,” she said.
  • Michelle McLean, Superintendent at Arvin Union School District. McLean was honored for adjusting favorite recipes to improve nutrition and for removing flavored milk from school cafeterias. “The new lunches are a big deal. They aren’t just about the food that ends up on a cafeteria tray, they’re a whole new way of looking at the way we instill good, healthful habits and build stronger communities,” McLean wrote in The Bakersfield Californian earlier this year.
  • Brenda Padilla, Nutrition Services Manager at Sacramento City Unified School District. Padilla was honored for increasing use of locally grown produce and developing tasty recipes that meet new nutrition guidelines, “Our kids love the food, and we love preparing it for them, because we know it’s fresh and delicious and will give them the energy they need to succeed,” she said.
  • Karen Ross, Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Ross was honored for promoting the use of California grown produce in school meals. “When school meals include fresh fruits, vegetables and other products grown right here in California, it’s great for our students, and it’s good for our farmers too,” she said.
  • Anthony “Tony” Smith, Superintendent of the Oakland Unified School District. Smith was honored for his commitment to improving meal quality and increasing student participation in school meal programs. “Our students love the new meals because they look good, taste good, and are prepared with fresh, local ingredients whenever possible. As a superintendent, I love them too, because I know that students who eat balanced meals perform better academically and experience more positive life outcomes,” he said.
  • Tom Torlakson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Torlakson was honored for his steadfast work promoting student health and nutritious school meals. “When students eat better and get more activity, they perform better in class. The road to increased academic achievement runs straight through our school cafeterias,” he said.


The California Endowment is a private, statewide health foundation, which was established in 1996 to expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved individuals and communities, and to promote fundamental improvements in the health status of all Californians. Headquartered in downtown Los Angeles, The Endowment has regional offices in Sacramento, Oakland, Fresno, and San Diego, with program staff working throughout the state. The Endowment challenges the conventional wisdom that medical settings and individual choices are solely responsible for people’s health. The Endowment believes that health happens in neighborhoods, schools, and with prevention. For more information, visit The Endowment’s homepage at

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