Making America Stronger

One School Lunch at a Time

During World War I, about 30% of our nation’s recruits were rejected due to malnutrition and poor health. The rejection rate at the beginning of World War II was about 45%. The National School Lunch Program was enacted in 1946, in response to post-war concerns that the effects of malnutrition on future soldiers posed a national security risk. When President Truman signed the bill to provide permanent funding and low-cost commodity foods to schools throughout this country he said, “Congress has acted with great wisdom in providing the basis for strengthening the nation through better nutrition for our children.”

Truman also pointed out that although we had the capacity to feed “plenty of good food to every man, woman and child in the country,” our failure was in the distribution of that food. Developing community infrastructures to move food from our nation’s farms onto school lunch plates was at the heart of the National School Lunch Program.

Cafeterias were built and skilled “lunch ladies” served freshly prepared farm-raised foods to school children in the 1950s. But over time, these infrastructures began to crumble, giving way to off-site bulk-processed reheatable foods. Then in 2007, a movement began locally to restore our school lunch focus on fresh farm vegetables and to ensure a robust food security network for our community.

With this in mind (as well as the recent talks of budget cuts to the School Lunch Program), I climb the steep flight of stairs to the Food Services office of Santa Barbara Unified School District (SBUSD). In the background, trucks unload fresh produce at the adjacent warehouse and school district trucks leave carrying food supplies to school kitchens.

Food Services Director Nancy Weiss greets me warmly as I enter her office, sunlight bouncing off the cascading ringlets of her reddish brown hair. Within a few minutes she’s showing me cell phone photos of the fruit on her plum tree and we’re discussing the sweet smoky flavor of grilled Blenheim apricots.

It becomes clear as we talk that Nancy’s determination and energy have been a major force in bringing fresh whole ingredients back into the SBUSD kitchens. Prior to working for the school district, Nancy owned SOhO restaurant in downtown Santa Barbara, where she specialized in farm-to-table meals. When she sold SOhO and began working in the Goleta Valley Junior High cafeteria in the mid-’90s, she was shocked to learn that the school served lunches prepared by McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Domino’s Pizza.

The district was buying frozen heat-and-serve food to reduce skilled labor and equipment costs. Fast-food culture had taken hold and food service directors around the country were buying in to this new version of efficiency. Schools had no use for stoves and ovens, so the districts were not replacing them. Box cutters had become one of the most frequently used kitchen devices.

Appalled, she tried to make things like Chicken Parmesan out of the chicken nuggets. “A chef has to be flexible, creative and open minded,” she says, but this was a new level of challenge. Nancy persisted and she eventually took over as the school’s kitchen manager. Then in 2007, she was asked to be interim school food services director for the Santa Barbara Unified School District. That’s when things really began to change.

Nancy knew she had more on her plate than just sourcing better ingredients. The whole infrastructure needed rebuilding. She needed to network with local farmers, develop systems for moving food from the farms to school kitchens, create more storage for fresh produce, invest in new equipment and train her kitchen workers how to prepare fresh food in large quantities.

Fortunately the Orfalea Foundation’s School Food Initiative (a county-wide assessment of school food needs) coincided with Nancy’s interim and subsequent permanent role as food services director. Nancy credits the Orfalea Initiative with sharing the vision, guidance, groundwork and support for rebuilding Santa Barbara’s food distribution infrastructure.

Free to focus on bringing whole food ingredients back into the kitchens, she began by replacing expensive highly processed prepared foods with low-cost high-protein commodity ingredients. Historically school lunches have been an outlet for surplus foods such as dairy products, poultry, beef and grains purchased by the US Department of Agriculture to support American farmers.

Nancy also saw the opportunity to move towards a more nutrient-rich plant-based diet, integrating fresh organic fruits and vegetables from local farms into the school menu. Today, about 35% to 70% of the produce the district schools serve comes from local farms (depending on the time of year). The majority of this produce is loaded into trucks fresh from the fields and delivered to the district warehouse by Harvest Santa Barbara and The Berry Man.

However, Nancy also orders directly from a few local farmers. One of them is José Alcantar. “Anything he grows and can sell us, we’ll buy,” she says. I was soon to see why.

Nancy invited me to visit Alcantar Organics in Carpinteria on a chilly morning in February. The air was clear, the sky deep blue and the surrounding green-gray hills sharply contoured. José’s day had begun hours earlier. He smiled in greeting, his eyes shaded by a raffia cowboy hat. He offered me an orange Clementine and we shared a sticky handshake… an indication of the Clementine’s sweetness.

This is just one of his four farms. At this location, José and his four workers grow most of the salad greens for the school district’s salad bars. We tasted as we walked—ruby red romaine next to rows of green and purple kale, dark green spinach and plump red and green cabbages. Rainbow rows of carrots were newly planted—white, yellow, orange, red and purple. José was preparing an area for tomatoes. The last of his curly kale plants stood tall with their lower stalks picked clean, looking like a Dr. Seuss forest.

José has been farming organically since he came to the United States at age 16. He worked at Tutti Frutti Farms for almost 20 years before leaving his role as foreman to start his own five-acre organic farm in Carpinteria. José now farms 18 acres.

His ongoing carrot, beet and radish plantings keep the district supplied with these items all year long. “The watermelon radishes are coming along nicely,” he tells Nancy. He shows us cell phone photos of the huge fennel bulbs he’s growing for her at another property.

As we leave, we pass his seedling nursery, where thousands of seedlings are ready to plant. “I like watching my plants grow,” he says affectionately. And it’s clear his plants feel the love.

My next visit would be to the La Colina Junior High kitchen. It’s pizza day and two of the kitchen staff, Nora Canto and Roxan Garza, are out sick. Cafeteria manager Kathleen McNeil is pulling chicken breasts out of the convection oven to put into the Caesar salads that Ketut Karang is assembling on stainless steel prep tables near the stove. Eva Escoto is in the next room preparing cucumbers, carrots, romaine mixed with dark green kale, jicama, snap peas and blueberries for the salad bar. A sign near the salad bar indicates that carrots and blueberries are the Featured Harvest items that will be highlighted in the menu throughout the month.

This is the first of two visits I will make to the La Colina kitchen. On this introductory visit I quickly join the production team. I help Ketut with the Caesar salads that will be sold from carts at lunchtime along with pizza and the sandwiches that Eva has made.

The pace picks up when Ana Monzon and Leo Charco arrive. Ana cuts fresh fruit and vegetable sticks and puts them, seasoned with lime and chili spices, into cups while Leo prepares 30 chicken quesadillas to grill and sell from the Mobile Café truck parked outside.

I help Ketut assemble and wrap chicken, pork and vegetarian burritos, which go into a warmer where they will be sold at the snack window along with freshly made double cheeseburgers and homemade cookies. Meanwhile Kathleen bakes 26 pizzas. The roar of the convection ovens mixes with the buzz of alarms reminding us not to let the pizzas burn. Declarations that we are almost ready increase in volume as students line up outside. Nine hundred students have just 35 minutes to eat and get back to class.

On my second visit I arrive early to make pizza dough with Ketut. While the cellophane-wrapped pizza slice has become a symbol of half-hearted meal planning, freshly made pizza remains a daily option at La Colina.

“Pizza is not the enemy when made with love and whole ingredients,” Nancy says. The cost is low because this pizza is made using USDA commodity grains and cheese. Served with a green salad and fruit, it’s a complete meal that the kids will eat with enthusiasm.

Ketut tells me to measure out two gallons of cornmeal and two cups of yeast while he measures out the white and wheat flours. I feel like I’m baking in the giant’s kitchen. We create 22 large pizzas that will be topped, baked and served the next day.

I’m impressed by the smooth efficiency of the kitchen and the skill of these cooks. Eva brings me some of her kale chips to taste, Nora has finished a huge batch of bright green salsa verde and is roasting yellow squash with onions for our morning break. This is restaurant-quality food. Even the salad dressings are made from scratch.

It has not always been this way. In fact, the La Colina kitchen was closed down until 1996 when Kathleen was given the job to reopen it. “They had been transporting the food over from a nearby high school,” she says. “We had to find what we could in storage and make due with that to get started.” She was hired for 6½ hours a day but worked 8.

Kathleen brings me a box of José’s organic vegetables delivered that morning. “Taste this beautiful sweet celery,” she says, breaking off a piece. “Look at these cauliflowers—white, yellow, green and purple. I love the smell of this feathery fennel. These cabbages are delicious sautéed and delicious raw.” Kathleen never stops moving; it’s easy to see how Kathleen’s love of good food inspires her staff.

The La Colina kitchen staff arrives at 6am. Roxan had already prepared fruit smoothies and breakfast for the students before I arrived. Later in the day, Leo and Ana will coordinate the Supper Program, which provides nutritious balanced dinners five days a week at six cafeterias and five Mobile Café sites community-wide.

La Colina is just one of the 11 kitchens in the school district, employing 130 people who procure, prepare and distribute food for 28 sites. Food services like this are the lifeblood of our community.

While many of us do not worry about food security, Nancy says “There is real hunger in our community.” She sees it first-hand every day. “District wide, almost 49% of our students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.” All schools in the district provide free breakfasts to all of their students and eight schools also provide free lunches to all students. All schools receive state and federal reimbursement based on the number of free, reduced and paid lunches they serve each day.

The district’s Supper Program and a Summer Food Service Program also provide free meals to youth under 18 and low-cost meals to adults. Both of these federally funded programs are open to the public.

While the SBUSD provides a key spoke in the food distribution wheel, it is not alone in addressing food security in our community. The Food Bank of Santa Barbara, the Carpinteria Unified School District and the Goleta Union School District all have programs that work alongside each other to fill food distribution gaps. In times of crisis they work together with the Red Cross to shelter and feed displaced community members and emergency personnel.

Thanks to Nancy Weiss, Kathleen McNeil, José Alcantar and many other community members like them, Santa Barbara’s food distribution infrastructure is once again strong and vital.

As Congress considers budget cuts to social services, we must encourage our legislators to reinforce, not undermine, this system that helps us feed our communities and keeps us strong and healthy as a nation.


Resources


.

SB Unified School District, Food Services

SBUnified.org/departments/business-services/food-services/

Supper Program

SBUnified.org/departments/business-services/food-services/supper-club/

2016 Summer Food Service Program

SBUnified.org/2016/06/20/summer-food-service-program/

Summer Meals

From mid-June through August, Santa Barbara Unified School District provides breakfasts, lunches and suppers free to any youth 18 years or younger at sites throughout the community. Open to the public, this program offers low-cost meals for adults as well. See SBUnified.org/departments/business-services/food-services for details.

The Food Bank of Santa Barbara County offers free meals for youth through their Picnic in the Park Program (FoodBankSBC.org/programs/picnic-in-the-park/). The Boys and Girls Clubs, Community Action Commission and the Carpinteria, Guadalupe and Lompoc school districts also offer summer meal service programs at sites within Santa Barbara County (CDE.ca.gov/ds/sh/sn). The Los Alamos Foundation offers free summer lunches for school age children at the Los Alamos County Park (TheLosAlamosFoundation.org).

To find the meal locations nearest you, text “SUMMERFOOD” to 805 877-877 from your cell phone.


A Blast from the Past:

It Happens Every Noon – National School Lunch Program – Nutrition for all – rich or poor – 1960s


Nancy Oster’s two children remember “hot lunches” at La Colina in the 1980s as previously frozen microwaved cheeseburgers and greasy soggy fries. She apologizes to them for not taking away their lunch money and making them take homemade “hippie granola” bag lunches to school instead. She is grateful to recent Woman of the Year Award winner Nancy Weiss and her skilled food service providers for their dedication to putting healthy food back onto our local school lunch trays.

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