The Lunchroom Renaissance

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 4.18.46 PM September 8, 2015 – The beginning of the school year, at least in my household, launches what I, only partially in jest, call ‘The Lunchbox Wars.” Through the years, my boys and I have battled about their reusable containers—some were difficult for little hands to open, some leaked like crazy, and some were banned after ‘the glass incident’ in the cafeteria; now only plastic containers are allowed at our school. We argued about whether or not curry egg salad would get them teased at the lunch table.

School lunches, that is to say cafeteria lunches,  were mostly off the table because the food did not meet my requirements for quality and choices. That is changing. School lunches are enjoying a renaissance thanks to new programs being implemented in local districts around the Monterey Peninsula.

Based on the philosophies and practices of Chef Ann Cooper who completely revamped the lunches in Berkeley public schools, Carmel Unified School District (CUSD) adopted a new food services program this school year.

20140410-IMG_0180Over the course of a decade, Cooper eliminated almost all processed foods and introduced organic fruits and vegetables to the daily menus in Berkeley schools. Cooper also founded what is now the Chef Ann Foundation, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping schools ensure that every student has access to fresh, healthy food each and every day. One of her programs The Lunch Box provides schools with free step-by-step guides, tools, and recipes to improve their food programs. CUSD is also utilizing Nutrislice, a new software product, that allows families to look at the lunch menus and see nutritional information on the choices.

One CUSD parent who has students at both Tularcitos Elementary School and Carmel Middle School shared, “We’re excited for the new lunches. They are hoping the portions are bigger this year. I’m just glad they’ll be getting more locally-sourced produce and have more organic options.” Looking through the menus with her, we agreed that we wouldn’t mind trying the lunches. Gone are the days when “pizza” and “corn dogs” are choices. Students are getting “whole wheat pasta with choice of housemade marinara or fresh made meat sauce, roasted zucchini, and a banana.” Also, the menu boasts: “Fresh garden salad made with local produce will be served daily.”

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Lunch Ladies: Jennifer Gerard (left) director of nutrition service for Monterey Unified School District with Mary Guerra (right) nutrition services manager at Monterey High School.

Real Good Fish, formerly Local Catch Monterey Bay, has partnered with Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD) through their Bay2Tray program.  Maria Finn, Director of Marketing and Member Services for Real Good Fish, explains, “We are sourcing local seafood that normally doesn’t have a market and putting it into school lunches.” Bay2Tray encourages schools to embrace serving fish that traditionally would have been wasted because they are by-catch species that are less familiar to consumers. Or, in the case of our local Pacific grenadier, the fish is not pretty. But once it’s filleted and prepped, no one would ever know the fish has a bulbous head, bulging eyes, and oddly tapered tail.

Finn also explains the educational aspect to their program. “We also send fishermen into the schools to talk with kids and answer their questions about the ocean and seafood.” She recounted when fisherman and chef Kevin Butler recently visited Ord Grove Elementary in Seaside. “The students had a lot of questions. Some were easy and some a little tougher. Along with sparking their passion for the ocean, we hope they start healthy eating habits for life.”

Both programs – CUSD’s version of the lunchbox and MPUSD’s Bay2Tray – are making significant headway to combat the Lunchbox Wars and provide local students and families with some great new food options.

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