After taking red beef off the menu 10 years ago, Director of Food and Nutritional Services Miguel Villarreal is adding it back into the rotation at the elementary schools in the Novato Unified School District in Marin County, Calif. “We now can offer a high-quality, local, grass-fed red meat and purchase it at a price we can afford,” he explains.
Back in 2002, Villarreal joined the Novato district after serving as a foodservice director in Texas school districts. “I remember looking at the menu and it was the same highly processed food that was being served in Texas,” he says. “I thought, “There's no way I'm going to go down this road again.’ And in Marin, there was over 60 organic farms in the area, and yet no locally grown produce was being served in the schools.”
Driven by a passion to help children and adults eat healthier, he focused on transitioning out highly processed foods and transitioning in healthy food in Novato. He started phasing out pastries, chocolate milk, and anything with a lot of sugar, trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup. Next, he cut the use of beef on the menu by half, saying that he was never comfortable serving children beef loaded with hormones and antibiotics.
The turning point came in 2008, when California issued a recall of 142 million pounds of beef, 37 million of which were destined for school lunches. “I thought, ‘This is crazy,’” recalls Villarreal. “I had gone through several beef recalls before but combined with the knowledge about unhealthy hormones and antibiotics in beef and the industry’s huge negative impact on the environment, we decided to stop serving red beef in our district.”
He began meeting with area farmers to see if one could provide grass-fed beef raised with sustainable practices at the price and quantity the district needed. “In 2008, there was just no way. They were quoting me $1.50 for a 2-ounce serving of ground beef,” he says, “when I had a little over a dollar for the whole meal.”
As he took red meat off the menus, he substituted more chicken and turkey. However as conventionally raised poultry also has antibiotics, it was really just the lesser of two evils as chicken and turkey farms don’t have as major an environmental impact as beef, according to Villarreal. He also got staff, students and parents on board with the beef elimination by providing signage and education about the reason behind the menu change and the mission of the district’s food program.
Then a few years ago, a local rancher, Loren Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch, reached out to Villarreal and said he was committed to providing grass-fed beef at the right cost and quantity for the district. “He was the parent of a child in our district so I knew he was as committed to finding a solution as I was,” says Villarreal.
It turns out part of the solution was serving a smaller portion of beef, thereby freeing up some of the initial budgetary concerns in procuring grass-fed beef. “Our menu is now plant-forward,” Villarreal explains. “Fifty percent of the entrée is from a meat protein and 50% is from a plant-based protein. So we can serve on ounce of ground beef in a taco, and then pair it with beans, for instance.”
The grass-fed red meat now replaces the ground turkey formerly used in the lunch program’s tacos. “This grass-fed beef that's local is much better for kids than the turkey that we were buying,” he says. Next, Villarreal and his team are working on developing recipes to increase the local grass-fed beef on their menus as well as extend it to the district’s middle and high schools. He also plans to find a local, sustainable farm to buy antibiotic-free chicken products.
For the last two years, the district has also held culinary nutrition education classes, once a semester for over 3,500 students. “We've done labs on hummus, kale, spinach and balsamic vinaigrette dressings. We teach kids about a dressing you can make with just three ingredients versus the prepackaged item,” he says. “It’s another way to start discussion on how we process foods.”
“My approach to the school lunch program is to provide our children the best possible foods that we can,” says Villarreal, “Many of our children are from economically disadvantaged families, and I know they're not being exposed, or have the means to buy, these types of foods.”