Encinitas school district featured in new documentary

The Encinitas Union School District’s health and wellness program — known for school gardens, healthy cooking classes and yoga — will soon hit the big screen.

In “The Kids Menu,” documentary filmmaker Joe Cross highlights the Encinitas school district and other programs across the nation that are at the forefront of tackling childhood obesity. Not only does the movie feature Encinitas, it’s set to debut here at 6 p.m. on March 1 at La Paloma Theatre.

When reached over the phone last week, Cross praised the Encinitas district for taking a holistic approach toward nutrition. Students at each of the district’s nine schools plant crops, harvest the yields and then cook the produce. Crops also provide fresh produce for the schools’ lunch programs.

“I’ve seen it countless times before, kids are more likely to eat produce and enjoy it when they grow it with their hands,” Cross said. He added the school system is “a powerful place to teach smart nutrition that will stay with kids the rest of their lives.”

Plus, Cross said he’s impressed that the curriculum for the school gardens is designed to reinforce science and math lessons.

Cross rose to prominence in 2010 with his debut documentary “Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead.” It chronicles how he lost 100 pounds by juicing vegetables, as well as his travels across America to extol a plant-based diet. Much of that film focuses on a morbidly obese trucker whose health greatly improves after meeting Cross.

The documentary crew shot for more than two days in Encinitas, notably at Ocean Knoll Elementary Farm, once a vacant site littered with debris. Now, it has rows of raised planter boxes, a greenhouse constructed from plastic bottles and bins for vermicomposting — composting with worms. Students along with the surrounding community regularly lend a hand to the farm.

“Everyone is excited at Ocean Knoll to plant something, watch it grow and then eat it. Eating something you created is just an amazing thing to do,” states student Adin Ackerman in the documentary.

The documentary also features Paul Ecke Central Elementary students cooking cauliflower pasta with pesto sauce and salad, all from the school’s garden. Plus, it spotlights the district’s yoga classes, which many have praised for improving flexibility and mindfulness. However, district yoga hasn’t been without controversy.

A 2013 lawsuit arguing that yoga is religious sought to end the program, although the district ultimately prevailed in the legal battle.

Cross came across the district when he floated the idea of the documentary to national nutrition experts. Sonia Jones, co-founder of the Sonima Foundation, which has provided grants for the district’s health program, pointed him toward Encinitas.

“When you put it out there you’re putting together a documentary, you get inundated with many contacts and many ideas,” Cross said, adding that Encinitas was a standout.

Cross said while shooting his first documentary he found that childhood obesity was a pressing issue on the minds of many, so he created the “The Kids Menu” to highlight programs that could be a model for others to follow. Another example in the film is Windy City Harvest Youth Farm. It employs around 80 teens from low-income communities at four farm sites in Chicago.

“They bring us in at the end of the documentary to show how this ties into an instructional program that gets at the hearts, the minds and the taste buds of kids,” said Encinitas district Superintendent Tim Baird, who was interviewed in the documentary, over the phone this week.

Baird said the district’s emphasis on nutrition began with added school gardens about five years ago. The district’s latest venture in this arena is the 10-acre Farm Lab at 441 Quail Gardens Drive in Encinitas, which has crops and portable buildings to accommodate student field trips.

A work in progress, plans for the site call for solar ovens to cook produce in an environmentally friendly fashion, a maker’s lab that would encourage students to fashion items that would come in handy on the farm and more.

Given that Encinitas is largely affluent, could the district serve as a model for low-income districts to follow?

Baird said the district is geographically blessed with a year-round growing season, and it has been fortunate to receive grants for its health program. But, he added, other districts without as many resources have launched similar agriculture initiatives.

“I don’t believe this is just a funding thing,” he said. “It’s a matter of focus.”

He also made the case that the health program doesn’t come at the expense of staples like reading and math, stating the district has won numerous academic awards.

“We think we’re teaching to what we call the whole child,” Baird said.

The screening at La Paloma will be followed by a Q&A session with Cross. Baird, Adin and Encinitas Mayor Kristin Gaspar will be among the notable attendees.

Besides the film tour, “The Kids Menu” will be available in April on iTunes and in May on Netflix.

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