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Leaning on fresh produce and having epic salad bars is one solution to a lack of kitchen equipment in hundreds of San Diego school kitchens.

Improvisation in San Diego school kitchens solves problems

Necessity led to the creation of some clever new methods and great new menu items with no stove tops available.

His name is Juan Zamorano, but you can call him MacGyver. As food and nutrition services program specialist/chef at San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), Zamorano has had to deal with city code and an aging infrastructure that led to the elimination of most stove tops from the district’s 186 kitchens.

“The way we do recipes for schools is a bit different than how we develop recipes for restaurants,” Zamorano says. “I would have never thought I’d be making stir-fry in a convection oven, but it works! A little creativity did the trick.”

With just steamers, combi ovens and convection ovens to work with, the school food team at SDUSD has been tinkering away with what’s at hand: stir-frying seasoned beef Philly steak, veggies and noodles in combi ovens and roasting pork shoulder for overnight street tacos and chicken drumsticks in convection ovens.

School food staff at SDUSD regularly attend culinary boot camps, and they’ve recently started to attend combi oven technology boot camps as well. Zamorano is going high tech with a plan that will essentially turn combi ovens into smart ovens.

“We’re planning to have all of our combi ovens connected via internet to monitor, manipulate and deploy information to these units via the internet,” he says.

Overnight meatloaf is another MacGyver-ed solution that’s in progress right now, using both combi and convection ovens.

The culinary team is also making the most of sectionizers and mechanical choppers to rely more on fresh salsas and robust salad bars. There are about 350 salad bars total in the district and “build-a-bars” are very popular, with DIY customizable burger, hot dog, ramen, nacho, mac ‘n cheese bars popping up throughout the school year. In addition, SDUSD operates a major summer feeding program and recently added from-scratch breakfast items.

This upcoming school year, a daily plant-based option will be offered at all secondary schools, says SDUSD Food Services Manager of Production and Acquisition Fred Espinoza. “Our 350-plus salad bars promote the consumption of fruits and vegetables and eating the rainbow,” Espinoza says. “We strive to source from California at every opportunity. We call it California Food for California Kids.”

Leaning on California’s bountiful fresh produce helps bridge the gap created by not having as much kitchen equipment, as does specially formulated spice blends.

“We developed a basic spice kit to control sodium and add flavor,” Zamorano says. “And we use condiments like spicy carrots. We’re working on cilantro-jalapeno ranch recipe and a green tomatillo salsa.”

The tomatillo salsa is a menu multitasker, as a condiment and as a sauce for an entrée, pork chile verde, other Hispanic menu items and an oven-roasted vegetable dish, veggies on fire with red bell peppers, yellow squash, mushrooms and broccoli.

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