Turlock USD has a big advantage over many other school districts looking to maximize their purchasing of locally produced products: It sits in the midst of one of the premier agricultural regions in the country in Northern California.
So it’s not surprising that the school district’s meal program emphasizes local sourcing, though the extent of it may be a bit surprising.
“We are probably in the 90 to 95 percent range in local proteins and local fresh fruits and vegetables, and certainly our dairy is local,” says Scott Soiseth, director of nutrition services. “Buying local is very easy for me and it would be shame on me if I didn’t as we’re in the food basket here in the Central Valley.”
But Turlock doesn’t just buy local and prepare it to best advantage. It absolutely flaunts it.
“When I talk with colleagues about our program, it’s not the child nutrition program [they refer to], it’s the Real Fresh program,” Soiseth says.
Branding was a natural step for Soiseth.
“I came from the restaurant business, so I brought [a commercial sense] along with me,” he says. “I knew the success of branding, I knew the success of marketing and how it sells your product and drives what you do. And it keeps your product consistent. Even though we’re in a school setting, we still have to market ourselves to impress the customers. Students are very fickle, so we have to impress them.”
One way of impressing them is with attractive choices, even at the elementary school level, where there are at least three meal options every day. They include a fresh packaged salad, a sandwich with a protein such as a beef tri-tip or freshly carved turkey and an entrée.
The latter can feature a locally raised no-antibiotic chicken drumstick or thigh with fresh fruit and a fresh vegetable salad or mac and cheese with mini hot dogs made from grass-fed beef. Wednesdays are always pizza days, with pizza being the only major product the district still purchases preprocessed.
“We haven’t created our own pizza line yet, but that’s on the chalkboard,” Soiseth promises. “Other than that, though, everything is as fresh and local as we can make or create it.”
The middle and high school menus are identical with a plethora of choices, all the meals being prepared at the sites (the elementaries are supplied from a central kitchen). Soiseth says he recognized some years ago that treating middle schoolers like grade schoolers was shortchanging them, “so we took them off [the elementary school menu] and put them on the high school menu.”
“We have a full rotisserie at all the middle and high schools so they can get [freshly cooked] chicken,” Soiseth says. “We take the whole chicken just like the restaurant industry does and remove the quarter with the thigh and leg [to serve individually]. Then, the breast meat is gleaned for our Fresh Mex program [for use in the] burritos, tostada bowls and nachos.”
Those ethnic dishes are also available with sustainable carne asada. Sustainable beef also is served in the form of freshly grilled hamburgers.
“We cook our beef on barbecues we have at each [middle and high school] site, so [students can] get a fresh barbecued hamburger,” Soiseth says.
There’s also a deli station at each secondary school site where sandwiches are built to order either on whole-wheat bread or as a wrap. “We’ve found they will wait in line for a quality product—not for a [premade] or processed product, but for a fresh product,” Soiseth says.
Soiseth is not a big fan of open bars where student pick their own selections.
“Our goal is to serve the children as much plated product as we can,” he explains. “We do have the grab and go for kids who want that, but [generally] we want a lot of plated items for the kids.”
The pre-plating goes especially for fruits and vegetables.
“I bought a vertical drop machine so we can package all fruits and vegetables in little packs,” he says. “That way I can, for example, put snap pea, jicama, tomato and cucumber in one pack and create [a lot of attractive] color. We package a lot of our products so they’re more appealing, easy to grab and we can control what’s in there.”
The results are in the numbers. The Turlock school meal program has rocketed from a budget of $2.3 million when the Real Fresh initiative was launched a decade ago to $6.1 million today. The increased revenue is plowed into higher quality products and equipment additions that have allowed even more sophisticated production, such as the rotisseries and the barbecue grills at the secondary school sites.
And that benefits all students because the entire program is based on serving reimbursable meals so that all students can access all the choices, which is quite a change from the pre-Real Fresh days when “it was about 90 percent a la carte, just grab-and-go pizza pockets, burritos and stuff like that,” Soiseth recalls.
Of Turlock’s 14,000 student enrollment, 61 percent qualify for free or reduced price school meals, so “we’re right in the middle and have to do good things for both” paid and subsidized students.
Lunch participation rates currently run in the 70-to 80-percent range in the elementary sites and the 50-to 60-percent range at the high schools, with rates approaching 90 percent for students who qualify for free and reduced price meals.