Last school year, meal participation was dropping in Napa Valley schools, even though around half of the student population qualifies for free and reduced lunches.
Poor quality was the culprit, say parent food advocates Katie Aaron and Laura Miller. Salad bars were filled with canned produce and containers of orange juice. Premade pizzas were heated and stuffed back into plastic bags before serving. Kids who did sit down with a school lunch often left a good portion of it on the tray.
“The thought of a child not eating, being hungry and expected to learn, was too much for me to ignore,” remembers Miller, who got involved early with a push for higher quality food in the district.
Three views of what's new on the menu at the Napa Valley Unified School District.
Aaron, who started taking notes on the food in her son’s cafeteria when he was in kindergarten, noticed that students were regularly eating corn dogs and other processed items she dubbed “carnival food.”
Miller, Aaron and other parents discovered that nearby districts were spending less and providing higher quality meals by cooking from scratch using commodity products, applying for fresh produce grants and managing foodservice operations themselves. One nearby district saved 1.2 million dollars in one year by direct-ordering food.
Aaron recalls thinking, “We can do something different. What we’re doing here, and have done here for 35 years, is antiquated.”
Napa Valley Unified School District’s foodservice had long been managed by Sodexo. Looking for alternatives, parents researched, toured other school food programs and launched awareness campaigns. They started lobbying the school board to implement a self-operating program two years ago. This past August the district hired a dedicated nutrition director.
Chef Brandy Dreibelbis, fresh from an eight-year stint in Boulder where she worked for chef Ann Cooper of the Chef Ann Foundation, got right to work. She pared down the daily entrée options and created a six-week rotating menu and transformed the way they prepare commodity products. (The district is still under a purchasing agreement with its former foodservice management company.) Whole potatoes become oven-roasted potato wedges. Chicken is made into barbecue sliders or roasted and served alongside a biscuit.
She also overhauled the salad bars, stocking them with fresh produce. To meet nutritional goals of the reimbursable program, students are required to take two salad bar items.
“It’s exciting to see how excited the kids get about fresh fruits and vegetables,” Dreibelbis says, noting that food from the salad bars is unlimited. “Kids can have as much as they want.”
Antonia Rivera (left) and Maria G. Ramirez prepare a meal in the central kitchen.
The menu is punctuated with local ingredients such as fish, hormone- and antibiotic-free red meat, grains and produce. Recently, they celebrated California Thursday with local grilled vegetable sandwiches, chicken meatballs with Sacramento rice and fish tacos.
The tacos highlight a notable local ingredient, Pacific grenadiere, a flaky, white-fleshed fish typically tossed back or discarded by commercial fishermen. The fish, which is featured twice during the menu cycle, comes from a California-based fishery program, Bay2Tray.
They’re also taking steps to introduce students to local flavors through a Harvest of the Month program. In August, they sampled local watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew. In September, they featured local tomatoes. In October, they’re serving scratch-made apple crisp and sampling different types of local apples at elementary schools.
“We want little kids to know that there are different varieties of the same fruit,” Dreibelbis says.
Big changes will begin at the end of this school year, when the district will make good on its plans to renovate the central kitchen, expanding and updating the under-equipped space. Individual elementary cafeterias will be transformed from heating depots to “finishing kitchens,” allowing for some on-site food preparation. In the next two to five years, all 16 elementary school cafeterias will be updated.
Right now, meals are prepared in the central kitchen and transported hot to schools, where the food lies waiting for the lunch bell. Once the infrastructure is in place, they’ll shift to a cook-chill system. Meals will be delivered cold the night before and heated for the first time in school cafeterias, just before meals are served.
While they await renovations, the district will continue to make meals from whole ingredients and build ties to local food purveyors. They plan to add more local produce and are looking into sourcing directly from a local poultry company as early as next school year.
Dreibelbis is committed to improving the quality of the food every year. “In some cases, this might be the only hot and healthy meal these kids get,” she says, “so it’s really important that it’s the best quality they can be offered.”