BY DEBORAH LUHRMAN
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DEBORAH LUHRMAN
AND RICHARD GREEN
Not long after signing on to manage food services for Santa Cruz City Schools, chef Jamie Smith was moving out an old piece of kitchen equipment when he spotted a greasy, smiley-faced disc of processed potatoes on the floor.
“That potato product thing had been there for six months at least,” he said. “It had been through heat and cold, wet and dry, yet it showed no visible signs of decay. Mold wouldn’t even grow on that scary thing, but still it was counted as a vegetable by the USDA!” This fall, a vortex of factors is combining to ban those kinds of frankenfoods from the cafeteria and make school food part of the lesson plan for teaching kids how to become healthy eaters.
At the center of the vortex are British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolution TV show, as well as Jan Poppendieck’s groundbreaking book Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, and First Lady Michelle Obama’s campaign against childhood obesity. But equally influential is our own Central Coast Farm to School program, which is now part of the Healthy Kids Act signed by President Obama last December.
Perhaps it is not surprising then that school food, once the turf of lunch ladies in hairnets, is now attracting rock-star chefs like Smith— who got his start at New York’s famed Union Square Café and once owned Santa Cruz’s popular Sestri restaurant. In Monterey County, chef Dory Ford—formerly of the Ventana Inn and the Monterey Bay Aquarium and now chef at Point Pinos Grill in Pacific Grove—prepares school lunches, as does Earthbound Farm Executive Chef Sarah LaCasse. They are joined by dozens of tireless food service directors, school board trustees and PTA members throughout the Monterey Bay area who are working in fits and starts to health-up and transform the food kids eat at school.
“My goal is to make people understand that nutrition is as important as education,” said Kimberly Clark, head of Student Nutrition for San Lorenzo Valley schools. “You can have a wonderful teacher who imparts wonderful knowledge, but if the student is not well-nourished and not able to absorb that information, then it is all pointless.”
STARTING FROM SCRATCH
So with slight variations and different degrees of transformation, depending on the school, it’s out with the potato smileys, French fries, ice cream, sodas and flavored milks. Banned are all desserts, corn dogs, chicken nuggets and even burgers—because Chef Smith thinks USDA school beef is “gross” and too frequently subject to health recalls. What’s in is a back-to-basics, balanced meal made “from scratch” using local produce as much as possible.
“We used to have Sponge Bob milkshakes and sherbet, but now the school food tastes better and we get healthy things like teriyaki rice bowls and fruit,” says 11-year-old Gabby White, who goes to Branciforte Middle School in Santa Cruz and likes the changes. Cooking school food “from scratch” is one way to eliminate potentially harmful preservatives, dyes and binders that pre-packaged foods may contain. But it goes beyond health benefits.
“Pre-packaged food leads us to have no attachment to where the food came from, to who made it or who’s serving it, so we are empowering our local workforce by using fresh, local foods and reducing our carbon footprint too,” said Smith—who was one of two California school chefs invited to Washington, D.C., this summer to take part in the USDA’s Produce University, designed to get more fruits and vegetables into the nation’s cafeterias.
School lunches that lucky kids are enjoying this fall include things like pasta Bolognese made with ground turkey, pork chile verde, roast turkey sandwiches on whole-wheat buns, fish tacos, roasted yams, salad bars, veggie burgers and everybody’s favorite—pizza! Yes, pizza can be a healthy option. When made with a wholewheat crust, it becomes an edible plate for any combination of fresh toppings and kids almost always like it.
“The most important thing to consider is: Will kids eat it?” said Ford, of Point Pinos Grill. His catering company, Aqua Terra Culinary, provides school meals for Stevenson School in Carmel, Chartwell School in Seaside, and is in talks to expand into Pacific Grove schools. Ford blends fresh vegetables into his pizza sauce, makes a whole-wheat crust from scratch and uses low-fat, low-sodium mozzarella—so it’s healthy but the kids don’t notice.
His mac and cheese with turkey sausage is another favorite and all meals are served with fresh fruits and vegetables. He says kids often try foods like tomatoes at school that they refuse to eat at home, because they see friends eating them.
“It’s not a hard sell. I’m not the food police and I don’t do school lunches because it is the foundation of our business, but as a way to give back to the community, to make sure kids are eating well and learning to appreciate healthy foods,” he added.
ORGANIC AND LOCAL
Watching kids turn into adventurous eaters is one of the most rewarding parts of the job for Myra Goodman, cofounder of Earthbound Farm, whose Carmel Valley–based Farm Stand serves up 100% organic lunches to students at nearby All Saints Day School.
“What’s exciting is that there are now lots of foods in the cafeteria that kids never really embraced before, like beets in the salad bar or roasted yams and soups that the kids are really liking. So there’s kind of a positive peer pressure to try new things and be an adventurous eater,” she said.
While Goodman hadn’t originally planned to be a school lunch provider, she was convinced by her sister—who has a daughter at the school—and by Earthbound Executive Chef LaCasse. In addition to helping develop healthful young eaters, she sees it as a way of keeping kitchen staff fully employed year-round, even during the slow winter season.
Each day vegetarian and nonvegetarian meals are offered, the most popular being linguini with turkey meatballs, quesadillas and chicken potpies. (See recipe box opposite and EMB website.) For breakfast, they serve a healthy bar made with carrots and sweetened with applesauce.
Earthbound’s Farm Stand also hosts field trips for local schools with the goal of waking up the taste buds of young eaters. “We want to create those childhood memories of that sweet melon, that juicy peach and that sweet pea and fresh carrot,” said Goodman. “When kids taste delicious produce that is truly fresh at its peak of flavor— which is often seasonal and local and organic—then they are going to realize that they love fruits and vegetables.”
FARM TO SCHOOL
While not all schools are so fortunate as to be neighbors with Earthbound Farm, there’s a good chance that wholesome produce is growing within a few miles of every school in the Monterey Bay area.
“We’re blessed with all these fruits and vegetables that we can get locally,” said Irene Vargas, director of food services for the Alisal Union School District in Salinas—a large district that provides nearly 19,000 free breakfasts, lunches and snacks to children every day with funding from the USDA.
Because it is a poverty district, Alisal has been able to pioneer many government programs designed to get more fresh produce into the schools. In the early 1990s it was one of the first districts in the country to install salad bars and, starting in 2003, won a USDA grant to implement the “eat five a day” campaign promoting fruits and vegetables.
You might think that kids in the Salinas Valley are born with a love for fresh produce, but it is not so. “Even kids whose parents are farm workers sometimes don’t eat fresh produce at home,” said Vargas. “Often farm worker parents are very aware of all the pesticides used in the fields and don’t want their children exposed to them.”
The Farm to School program, run by CAFF (Community Alliance with Family Farmers) in our area, was designed to tackle those problems. Started in Watsonville, it has now expanded to 350 classrooms throughout California, including school districts in Santa Cruz, Monterey and San Benito counties—where almost all third-grade classes participate. Since receiving funding from the Healthy Kids Act last year, requests for assistance from more districts are flooding in. Farm to School has a two-pronged approach: It offers technical assistance on getting local produce into cafeterias, while at the same time working to get kids excited about eating more fruits and vegetables, and where their food comes from.
The Santa Cruz District, for example, has some direct contracts with apple growers Gene Silva and Gizdich Farms in Watsonville. It also buys through ALBA (Agriculture and Land Based Training Association), which operates a type of cooperative so that organic produce from small local farmers such as Happy Boy Farms and Swanton Berry Farm can be purchased by large institutions like the school district.
But Farm to School is probably best known for its efforts in the classroom. The Know Your Farmer program brings farmers into the school and organizes class field trips to local farms, while Harvest of the Month provides each classroom with a box of fresh produce and a lesson plan to help teachers introduce each food to the students. Thirty-two different products are rotated through the Harvest of the Month program—from rutabagas to kiwis.
Exposing children to fresh fruits and vegetables and letting them pick them at a farm or, better yet, grow produce themselves, is one of the best ways to teach healthy eating. That is why school gardens are sprouting up throughout the area, along with garden-based programs for teaching about ecology. (See sidebars.)
The new USDA guidelines for school food being implemented this fall are part of the Healthy Kids Act signed by President Obama last December. They bring menus more in line with government dietary recommendations. They also reflect the switch from the old carbheavy food pyramid approach to the new plate symbol—which shows that half of a meal should be made up of fresh fruits and vegetables. The new standards provide districts with an additional six cents per subsidized lunch to accomplish the following:
- Limit the amount of starchy vegetables such as potatoes, corn and peas to one cup a week.
- Increase the amount and variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Increase the use of whole grains.
- Require unflavored milk to be 1% fat and flavored milk to be fat-free.
- Limit salt and trans fats.
Some lawmakers in Washington—backed by the potato, processed food and dairy lobbies—have blasted the new guidelines as another example of big government meddling in the personal lives of its citizens. They are also trying to slash USDA funding for the upcoming year, which could put some programs in jeopardy. But administration officials say the national epidemic of childhood obesity makes healthy improvements absolutely necessary.
Salinas Valley produce growers have a lot to gain from the new guidelines and are squaring off for an ag battle. Led by Central Coast Congressman Sam Farr, they invited the USDA’s top nutrition official to visit our area on August 30. As EMB went to press in August, Kevin Concannon, USDA Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, was scheduled to tour local fields, a packing plant and a school cafeteria to see the new guidelines in action from field to fork. He was also set to take part in a round table where local growers and school lunch providers offered their advice on how to push back against critics in Washington.
FIGHTING FAST FOOD
Parents have generally reacted favorably to these improvements in school food, but it is still hard to gain acceptance from kids. They are accustomed to fast food and when given the chance will go off campus to buy it instead of eating in the cafeteria. In Salinas, for example, vendors surround the schools before and after class, selling Cheetos, Red Bull and ice cream. In Santa Cruz, fast food restaurants or convenience stores are often walking distance from campus and earn up to 40% of their revenues from students.
Last year on average only about 150 students out of 1,000 ate in the cafeterias at Santa Cruz high schools. The others went off campus. Short of closing the campus cafeterias, the district is embarking on a marketing campaign with a name change, hoping to make cafeterias fun and school food “cool.” Cafeterias are being re-named the Surf City Café and taste tests will be conducted to introduce kids to the upgraded food. While it is hard to innovate in a time of school budget cuts, the district will also experiment with offering free, healthy breakfasts in the classroom for every student at Gault Elementary School—something other schools like those in the Pajaro Valley have been trying for some time.
“The kitchen is competing with the classroom for budget dollars, but we’re going to persevere,” said Santa Cruz School Board President Cynthia Hawthorne, who has been the driving force behind the transformation in the city’s school cafeteria food.
“Serving breakfast is the most effective way to make sure every child, including those who may not have had much supper the night before at home, is prepared for academic success,” she added. To help educate parents and the community at large, Santa Cruz is joining together with districts throughout the area to sponsor the School Food Festival on Saturday, October 8, from 9am to noon at the Aptos Farmers Market at Cabrillo College to showcase what they have achieved.
As Hawthorne, whose youngest daughter just graduated from Santa Cruz High, put it: “We have a moral obligation to do this for our children. Children have a right to healthy food and when communities are falling short we need to come together to make sure the rights of children are respected.”
Tanja Roos teaching ecoliteracy at Carmel Middle School.
Spread out on 10 acres alongside Carmel Middle School is a paradise of flowers, fruit trees and lush organic vegetable gardens called the Hilton Bialek Habitat. Begun in 1995 as an outdoor science classroom and named for a beloved member of the board of the Carmel Unified School District, it has blossomed into a multi-purpose oasis where students learn everything from gardening to ancient history and ecoliteracy.
On a recent sunny morning, garden director Tanja Roos was
teaching a group of students about the kinds of plants grown in Roman times and foods the gladiators might have eaten, like the dates topped with goat cheese and honey that she handed out for the kids to sample.
“When they study Mesopotamia, we dig irrigation channels
and plant fava beans,” she said. “And when they study ancient Egypt we make papyrus. It makes history come alive!”
Next period, the sixth-grade ecoliteracy class straggled in.
Ecoliteracy is a required daily six-week class designed to teach kids “where we are in 2011 on planet earth.” They learn how sustainability is reflected in everyday lifestyle choices like food, clothing shelter, energy use and transportation.
And they learn the FLOSS principle. No, it is not a way to get bits of celery out of the teeth, but simple guidelines for making healthy food choices. FLOSS, as any sixth grader could tell you, is an acronym for Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonal and Sustainable.
New this fall is a $1.1 million LEED-certified cooking classroom in the garden. It is the first “green” public school building in Monterey County and was built entirely with recycled or renewable materials. It features alternative energy sources, rainwater catchment for irrigation and a living roof planted with wildflowers and native grasses. The living roof is a good insulator, helping keep the classroom warm in the winter and cool on hot days. It also provides a habitat for the beneficial bees and other pollinators needed to keep the garden growing.
Food What?! interns tend their crops on the UC Santa Cruz farm
Sitting at a picnic table under a big, shady walnut tree up at the UC Santa Cruz farm, students from area high schools were getting a lesson in how to write a resume. Under the category of experience, they were instructed to write “Successfully completed youth empowerment internship”—strong words aimed directly at potential employers.
Empowering young people through growing and cooking their own food is the goal of the 5-year-old Food What?! program headed by teacher Doron Comerchero. Each spring and fall, 52 teenagers are selected to take part in the 12-week internship, which is a youth arm of Life Lab, the Santa Cruz–based science and environmental educational organization. The students plant and tend to organic vegetable gardens and learn to cook healthy lunches with the produce, including dishes like quesadillas stuffed with kale, broccoli and red peppers, spanakopita, pasta with homemade pesto, whole-wheat pizza topped with green vegetables, and even vegetable sushi.
They also participate in practical skills workshops in communications, public speaking, resume writing and financial literacy.
On completion of the internship they are paid $175, which according to Comerchero is an important motivational factor.
“My mom works late and I got tired of eating Ramen noodles for dinner,” said 16-year-old Tyler Espinosa. “So I joined Food What?! to learn how to cook, but I found out that I really like plants and now I’ve got a job at ProBuild nursery.” Other teens said their weekly Food What?! internship lunch was the only time they ate vegetables at all.
During the summer months, the best interns are hired to run the farm and sell their fresh, organic harvest to needy families at heavily discounted prices—all with the goal of youth empowerment and getting more healthy foods onto the tables of more Santa Cruz families.