Texas Billionaire Gives Westmont $1 Million

Westmont College has received a $1-million gift from Montecito neighbors Harold and Annette Simmons, a sizable donation that will be set aside in part for student scholarships and also go toward funding an endowed chair for the soon-to-be-built visual arts center and gallery. Mr. Simmons, a self-made Texas billionaire who made a lucrative career through a drugstore chain and later as a corporate investor, said in a statement that the gift was in part to recognize Westmont Chancellor David K. Winter for his contributions to the college and to the people of Montecito.

“We believe that Westmont is an asset to our community,” Simmons said.

A grateful Dr. Winter responded: “This gift is a wonderful encouragement to the college, as well as to me personally.”

A native Texan who rose out of the rural town of Golden to prosper as a major financier, Mr. Simmons now controls numerous companies, including five corporations on the New York Stock Exchange. Last year, Forbes listed him 278th on its list of “The World’s Richest People,” with a fortune of $2.6 billion.

His total charitable contributions amount to an excess of $300 million, a lot of which have gone to the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, including more than $97 million to enhance the center’s cancer programs.

While half of the $1 million donation will be designated for student scholarships, the rest will partly fund an endowed chair for Westmont’s yet-to-be constructed Adams Center for Visual Arts. The facility is part of phase one of Westmont’s multi-hundred-million-dollar campus update.

Child Nutrition Goes on the Menu

Discussion Focuses on Reforming School Lunches

The fruit was local and the tea was organic, suitable menu items, no doubt, for a pointed talk about changing what kids eat at school.

During a breakfast discussion hosted last Friday by Montecito Union, the director of nutrition services for the Berkeley Unified School District gave an urgent presentation that called for sweeping reformation of school lunch programs, one that focuses on procurement of local goods and puts more emphasis on kids’ health.

Ann Cooper, the self-styled “renegade lunch lady” whose position in the Bay Area oversees 16 public schools and more than 9,000 students, said school lunch programs nationwide are failing to offer healthy eating options for kids and are contributing to reported increases in child obesity, diabetes and other diet-related illnesses. The solution to these problems, Cooper asserted, lies in making a bigger investment in school dining programs by making the health of kids the priority instead of cutting corners on costs.

“I’ve never met a child that would actually die if they didn’t eat a chicken nugget,” Cooper said in front of an audience of more than 150 people.

Cooper’s message mixes well with legislation proposed by State Assemblyman Pedro Nava, the “Farm Fresh California Schools Program” that is designed to connect schools to local and regional farmers, deliver healthy food to school cafeterias and upgrade education opportunities on health and nutrition.

At Friday’s talk, Nava said his bill was important in eliminating the “disconnect between who makes the food and who eats it” and to reduce the frequency of diet-connected illnesses in children.

“If we do nothing about it, eventually the health cost to our children will be extraordinary – extraordinarily expensive and extraordinarily time-consuming,” he said.

In Berkeley, Cooper has had noticeable success revamping the food program, by eliminating government commodity products from the daily menus and replacing them with dishes that incorporate regional, organic and fresh foods and combine that with nutritional education. Those efforts, though, do not work, she said, without a well-organized plan to provide these meals every day with a full staff of people “who care about good food.” And there’s always the funding factor.

“When you’re building a program, you need the infrastructure,” said Cooper, who is co-author of “Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our Children.”

For Cooper, a swift reformation of school lunch program also seems in part addled by a sense of ambivalence. She’s looking to government agencies to make a more conscious investment in child health and provide “universal lunches” for all American public school students, but she’s also intensely mistrustful of the same institutions charged with providing that food.

She accuses “Big Ag business” of supplying schools with unhealthy, even poisoned goods and says government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture are complicit in those acts. She proposes transferring the oversight of food safety from the USDA to the Center for Disease Control, whose responsibilities, she said, are more aligned with the interests of children.

Her calls for reform resonate with local administrators, but the ideals appear difficult to put into practice. For the Santa Barbara School District, which still relies on commodity products in its cafeteria program, “very important causes” such as improving child nutrition will require help from private donors, said Superintendent Brian Sarvis.

“It’s not a new concept, but these types of changes can take awhile,” Sarvis said. “It’s the kind of change we need to make.”

In January, Montecito Union was involved in a district pilot program designed to improve school lunches by increasing per-meal spending and bringing in a chef to prepare healthy food. The chef for the program, however, quit after less than a week citing difficulties of mounting such a large operation, according to Kathi King, who is in charge of the school’s Wellness Committee.

“It’s been slow-going to make it healthy and to make it work,” King said of the nutrition efforts, “but we’re optimistic that we’ll get there.”

Music Academy Work to Begin, Again, in August

Continuing its campus-wide rehabilitation of facilities, the Music Academy of the West announced last week that Abravanel Hall would undergo a long-anticipated restoration. The complete renovation of the school’s principal performance and practice building will begin in August, following the academy’s summer series, and will last until June 2008.

“We have developed a construction and fundraising schedule that will enable us to see this exciting renovation project through to completion in a timely manner,” said James E. Davidson, chairman of the Music Academy Board.

Abravanel Hall will get an improvement in acoustics, a raked floor for improved sightlines, new and larger bathrooms, a remodeled lobby, a ticket office, upgraded electrical and mechanical capabilities and improved parking and handicap access.

The upgrade is the latest advancement of a multi-phase project that includes the already-completed restoration of the Lehrer Studios, a practice facility. In the future, the academy also looks to do work on the main building, in addition to building new studios and a practice center.

“This is an extremely important project for both the Music Academy and the surrounding community,” said NancyBell Coe, president of the Music Academy of the West. “This is a renovation strategy that we can all be proud of.”

School Carnival Brings in More than $100,000

The Montecito Union Carnival, the school’s flagship fundraiser, brought in an excess of $100,000 during the April 21 festivities, according to event organizers. The money raised was a record for the Parent Teach Association-sponsored extravaganza, a feat organizers attributed to a larger-than-usual attendance and a strong showing of support from Montecito’s business community, including platinum sponsor Village Properties, Mid-State Bank & Trust and American Riviera Bank, which underwrote the carnival tee shirts.

“On behalf of the PTA, I am thrilled that we were able to create such a successful event and look forward to continuing offer the special programs that have become unique to Montecito Union,” said event chair Marni Rozet.

The funds raised by the carnival go to a number of PTA programs, including two weeks of African drumming and dance direct from Ghana, a chorus trip to Disneyland and the sixth grade class’s Outward Bound experience.