By JOYELL NEVINS | Uptown News
[Editor’s note: Part two of a two-part series on school lunch programs. To read part one, “San Diego Unified program fights food insecurity” from Volume 11, Issue 9, visit bit.ly/2wRAELM]
When you think of a school cafeteria, do extra-sloppy Joes and mystery meat come to mind? If so, you can stop cringing and start salivating, because San Diego Unified Food & Nutrition Services (SDUFNS) is changing the face of cafeteria cuisine.
They have incorporated the regulations of the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act, from the Michelle Obama Let’s Move! campaign, and added specific programs of their own to produce healthy, fresh, and local meals. With menu options like St. Louis-style ribs, Baja fish tacos, mango berry salad, fresh salad bars, and build-your-own mac ‘n’ cheese, this district is upping their menu game.
Farm to school
You may have heard of farm to table, but that’s only for gourmet restaurants, right? Wrong. According to SDUFNS Director Gary Petill, San Diego County has the highest number of collective organic farms in the country. Those farms are huge suppliers of the more than 350 salad bars throughout the school district. Even when not from the county directly, SDUFNS endeavors to source its ingredients from California growers.
“We want to do California food for California kids,” noted “Chef Bob” Brody, SDUFNS program specialist.
The salad bars offer a rainbow of dark green, red orange, starchy vegetable, seasonal fruit, and legumes every day. Each Wednesday, the bars feature a seasonal produce option from farms specifically within this region. Placed on the plexiglass are “Your Famers” trading cards, explaining where the produce comes from.
The cards display a picture of the farmer(s) themselves on the front, and interesting facts on the back, such as the farm’s size, tractors, and animals. Featured farms include Sage Mountain, Suzie’s Farm, Stehly Farms Organic, Sahu Subtropical, and Sunrise Farms.
Garden to café
Some of the produce gets even closer than that — from schools’ own gardens. For the spaces that have been certified to allow it, student-grown produce is harvested and served in their cafeteria. During the last three months alone, the Garden to Café Schools harvested 598 pounds of produce to be used for their respective salad bars.
“The day the salad bar was stocked with the student-grown vegetables, you should have seen the kids’ plates,” exclaimed SDUFNS Superintendent Cindy Marten. “This is personalized and local seed to harvest.”
Other ways students get involved are through nutrition education in the classrooms, virtual farm field trips, and the student recipe contest. For last year’s contest, 120 students throughout the district submitted plant-based recipes to be incorporated into the grab-and-go menu. The winner was “Ava’s Avocado Salad,” a California-style concoction featuring, you guessed it, avocados. For the 2019-2020 school year, staff are testing vegan recipes from the contest as well.
The focus on local food extends beyond the salad bar. Bread comes from Guilano’s Bakery in Carson, the same bakery Five Guys uses, and dairy products are purchased from Hollandia Dairy in San Jacinto. A majority of the antibiotic, free-range chicken comes from Mary’s in Sanger. On Thursdays, cafeterias sponsor “California Thursdays,” where students can build a meal completely out of foods sourced from the state.
Pay the piper
How can SDUFNS afford this? In consumer grocery stores, organic produce and free-range meats are often significantly more expensive than the less healthy items. Plus, SDUFNS is budgeted under $5 a meal. But there are a couple of factors that help reduce the school’s cost.
First, there is no middleman. SDUFNS works directly with the farmers when they can. They also purchase in bulk, sometimes ordering the farmer’s entire stock of an item. Just as places like Costco and Sam’s Club offers reduced prices for large amounts, so SDUFNS is able to get lower rates when they purchase enough food to cover their 150,000 meals a day.
SDUFNS also saves money through its Love Food Not Waste program, ordering only enough of the items needed and not having to throw away excess food. Sauces such as dressings and salsas are often made in-house, reducing costs and preservatives. The homemade honey mustard is often referred to by the students as the “awesome sauce,” and their ranch is yogurt-based rather than buttermilk-based. Next year, the cafeterias plan to roll out avocado ranch as well.
Although there are shared menus among the schools, each kitchen has input into what their particular kids eat in what the district office refers to as “boots on the ground.” School cafeteria staff have the ability to slightly morph their menus to cater to their students’ interests.
“We are trying to decentralize the process,” SDUFNS Manager of Production and Acquisition Fred Espinosa explains. “When we give our people choice, they get more engaged.”
Another way students and staff are given choice is through the “build your own” bars. Cafeterias can choose from five different menu options – ramen, sandwich, nacho, burger, and macaroni and cheese. The students are able to customize their entrees in separate kiosks from the straight buffet or grab-and-go line.
“Build your own bars were started with the thought in mind that the kids want and like things done their way,” SDUFNS Supervisor Jennifer Ferback noted. “Being able to decide what toppings they want to use gives them a little bit of ownership and control over their lunch.”
All of these programs would be harder to pull off if the production kitchens weren’t stocked with the proper equipment. When Espinosa came on board, he brought with him decades of restaurant experience.
He and his team made sure products were from high-quality brands such as Heinz ketchup (the only ketchup worth having, he assures) and Del Monte canned vegetables. He also helped production kitchens acquire restaurant-level equipment like industrial blenders, industrial mandolines, and Rational self-cleaning ovens.
The oven cooks with steam and heat rather than dry heat only. It can also be programmed to do overnight roasting, and is furnished with a computer probe to ensure meats are cooked properly.
“Our number one priority is food safety,” Espinosa said.
SDUFNS cafeterias also use the YumYummi app, which breaks down individual menus and allows parents to pay ahead of time. Parents and students can also leave feedback and comments about foods they like or didn’t like.
The district has been getting recognition from local, national, and global entities for its efforts. Feeding San Diego CEO Vince Hall, who partners with SDUFNS for Love Food Not Waste, called the district the “mothership” for undergoing so many health and food initiatives simultaneously.
Japan’s assistant secretary of the interior came with a governmental group to tour the cafeteria operations. They are looking to incorporate many of SDUFNS’s initiatives in their own public education facilities.
SDUFNS isn’t resting yet. They continue to seek ways to feed kids throughout the year in the most healthy and cost-efficient method possible.
“We are nourishing minds and bodies,” Marten declared. “We want to do it well, and we want to do it right.”
Production kitchens, such as the one at Pershing Middle School, are available for kitchen tours by appointment. To set up a tour, view all school menus and resources, or learn more about the “Summer Fun Café,” visit sandiegounified.org/food or follow @sdfarmtoschool on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.