Bite by bite

CUSD takes small steps toward more healthful food offerings

Ella Geise and Aaron Ellingson show off lunch trays full of greens from the garden at Hooker Oak Elementary School. Kristen Del Real is the school garden coordinator and hopes to get more local foods on the cafeteria menu.

Ella Geise and Aaron Ellingson show off lunch trays full of greens from the garden at Hooker Oak Elementary School. Kristen Del Real is the school garden coordinator and hopes to get more local foods on the cafeteria menu.


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Tanya Harter, interim director of food services for the Chico Unified School District, is excited about the new pizza oven that the district purchased in June with government stimulus money. She plans to put it to use making pizzas with whole-wheat crust and healthful toppings.

CUSD’s purchase of the oven, and a delivery truck to go along with it, is partly in response to a campaign waged in early 2009 by local parents and food educators belonging to the Advocates for Healthy School Communities. The group approached the school district about improving the quality of cafeteria food, including offering fresh produce procured from local farmers (see “Local schools, local food,” CN&R, Jan. 22, 2009).

One area of concern was the frequency of the appearance of pizza on the district’s school-lunch menus.

Pizza, as local nutrition activist Richard Roth pointed out in a recent CN&R interview (see “Local heroes 2009,” CN&R, Nov. 26, 2009), is often high in fat, sodium and calories, and generally made with highly processed, low-quality cheese, flour, sauce and toppings—and can be a recipe for health problems down the road, particularly if eaten too often.

But don’t expect to see the new pizzas on CUSD school lunch menus until the fall of 2010.

“We are in the process of developing a committee to determine a process for the pizza oven,” Harter explained. “We serve close to 5,000 lunches daily and 1,800 breakfasts, so there’s a lot of planning involved.”

Part of that process, said Harter, will include involving CUSD students in taste-testing and recipe development.

Harter also pointed out that the pizza items currently served in CUSD cafeterias are made by an outside vendor, with whom the district has a school-year-long contract.

“Since we use [USDA] commodity cheese, most of that [cheese] has been diverted to the folks who [currently] make the pizza,” Harter said. She is in the process of doing the necessary paperwork to reroute that cheese to the district’s on-site bakery beginning next school year.

The school-lunch menu for Chapman Elementary School for the week of Jan. 4-8 featured slices of pizza, and variants thereof, every day of the week: Pepperoni pizza on Monday, cheese pizza on Tuesday, French-bread pizza on Wednesday, pepperoni pizza again on Thursday and “Maxx cheese sticks”—two packaged, breaded sticks of mozzarella cheese served with marinara sauce for dipping—on Friday.

Salad bars—“garden bars”—offering fresh produce delivered by Durham-headquartered produce distributor ProPacific Fresh are the norm in CUSD schools, and whole-wheat buns and bread, baked at the district’s on-site bakery, are now used districtwide for lunch items such as cheeseburgers. But the ongoing pizza issue, and lack of locally sourced produce, is evidence to the Advocates group that the district still has a long row to hoe.

Kristen Del Real—Advocates member, elementary-school teacher in the Paradise Unified School District, and school garden coordinator at Hooker Oak Elementary School—focused in a recent interview on some of the positive changes she has seen take place in CUSD food offerings.

A brand-new pizza oven purchased by the Chico Unified School District in June won’t be used until next school year.

photo courtesy of tanya harter

Del Real worked alongside CUSD school garden teacher Debra Abbott during the 2009 summer session at McManus Elementary, teaching gardening and cooking classes through a 21st Century grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

“We were able to work with kids in the [school] garden,” Del Real said. “We harvested greens and occasionally offered what we harvested in the school salad bar.”

She also pointed out that if the Hooker Oak educational school garden “occasionally has a surplus” of salad greens, food-service personnel at the school have agreed to wash and prepare the greens and put them in the school salad bar.

“They are willing to do that,” said Del Real. “But that has only happened a couple of times this year.”

What Del Real would really like to see is locally grown produce offered in school cafeterias on a regular basis and on a considerably larger scale throughout CUSD schools.

“I’d like to see a continued effort by Chico Unified to make connections with local farmers, and use the produce we grow in our region,” she said.

Harter said that she has tried to use Chico-area produce in the garden bars at CUSD schools, but found that both the extra money and time involved with procuring produce from local farmers, especially considering the district’s “extremely tight budget,” made the endeavor untenable thus far.

“In March [2009], we had two farmers’-market garden bars [at 14 CUSD schools], with locally grown produce from the Saturday farmers’ market,” offered Harter. “But the issue was that it was extremely expensive, and a challenge to receive the product. … The biggest problem was that the amount of money spent in one day for 14 school sites was equivalent to what I spent [using ProPacific Fresh] on the entire district—we have 21 school sites—for one week. … A flat of strawberries at the market is three times what I pay for ProPacific strawberries that come from San Diego.

“I had to work with eight different farmers—eight different invoices, payment-wise,” continued Harter. “I order produce from ProPacific—one distributor—and they deliver it to all 21 sites.”

Advocates member and former farmer Laurie Niles is optimistic, however, about the healthful school-lunch possibilities growing out of the Advocates’ budding relationship with statewide nonprofit California Alliance of Family Farmers (CAFF). Its Buy Fresh, Buy Local–North Valley program is being spearheaded locally by Noelle Ferdon, founder of Slow Food Shasta-Cascade/Chico.

“Buy Fresh, Buy Local–North Valley is an agricultural marketing project that is intended to create brand awareness about local food in a three-county region, which is Butte, Glenn and Tehama,” said Ferdon. “So when people see the Buy Fresh, Buy Local logo on the food they buy, they know it’s local.”

“We want to strengthen relationships between growers and consumers,” said Ferdon, “and get more farm-fresh foods to places where people eat, like schools and restaurants.”

School districts in Riverside, Portland, Ore., and Boulder, Colo., are among a growing number that have made changes to integrate local, fresh, nonpackaged foods into their cafeterias, said Niles.

Ferdon’s Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign is “all about connecting people with local purveyors of local food,” Niles said. “Why not a school district?”