Frances Gonzalez comes from a big family, so stretching a food budget was something she learned from an early age. Now, she’s using the same principles to feed Ojai (Calif.) Unified School District (OUSD), where she and her team are stirring the pot of school nutrition while keeping an eye on the hurricane of a continuing pandemic and relentless uncertain times.
Cooking from scratch can seem daunting to a school kitchen even in the most “normal” of times. But throw in the need for hybrid class schedules, remote learning, curbside pickup, social distancing and food safety concerns amped up, and cooking from scratch can sound downright impossible.
Pre-packaged food fits many needs, and the district does use items like cereal for breakfast. But the foodservice team supplements pre-packaged items with scratch-made items, such as breakfast pigs in a blanket, cinnamon rolls and bollilos (soft, heavenly Mexican bread rolls).
But scratch cooking has always been Gonzalez’s go-to, for better nutrition and more kid appeal. And at times, scratch cooking can beat frozen, pre-packaged items, in terms of bang for your buck, Gonzalez says. “Frozen burritos can be very costly and the kids don’t like them…it just came down to being a no-brainer. When I first started here, I started making little tweaks here and there and using USDA items when available. We use a lot of garbanzo beans, cheese, tons of chicken and turkey…we have meat eaters and plant-based eaters in our community. We were buying commercial alfredo sauce at $100 a case, and I can make it here with cream and milk for $20.”
How does Gonzalez keep a positive attitude? “I’m a cancer survivor,” she says. “Sometimes you have to accept what you can’t control and you do what you have to do to make it through. There’s no sense getting upset or mad. That benefits nobody."
Check out these menu items from OUSD that exemplify a can-do attitude.