Fresh daily

District bakery serves up sustainable, nutritious foods to local schools

Jackie Coats and Jesse Simpson work each day in the Chico Unified School District bakery, hand-crafting everything from pizza dough and sauce to students’ favorite chocolate chip muffins.

Jackie Coats and Jesse Simpson work each day in the Chico Unified School District bakery, hand-crafting everything from pizza dough and sauce to students’ favorite chocolate chip muffins.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Cafeteria food isn’t what it used to be. At least not within the Chico Unified School District. The stereotypical image of the sourpuss of a lunch lady slopping a ladle full of unidentifiable meat and gravy—and then smashing her finger into your biscuit—can be forgotten. So, too, can the syrupy fruit cocktail, the canned carrots and the cardboard that somehow passed for pizza.

No, at Chico public schools, the kids eat well.

Take it from Jesse Simpson, bakery manager for the school district. His title is more than fancy words—it carries with it a wealth of experience, from running baking departments inside Raley’s and Whole Foods supermarkets to rolling dough at Bouchon, one of the Bay Area’s most renowned bakeries.

In Chico, his wife’s hometown, he’s tasked with overseeing much of the food that makes its way onto school breakfast and lunch trays each day. The grains part of it, anyway.

“We’re always trying to evolve,” he said from inside the 2,500-square-foot bakery on district property near Cal Skate.

This past school year, for instance, the bakery started making more savory baked goods—bagel dogs, calzones, pot pies—in addition to breakfast staples such as bagels and muffins. Aside from providing healthy, sustainable meals, part of that is in an effort to encourage more kids to buy lunches, Simpson said; the more meals kids purchase, the more money the district can devote to buying the ingredients, equipment and other supplies.

Getting the kids is one thing; getting the parents is another.

As part of the newly formed Chico Bread Guild, Simpson took the opportunity to participate in the Chico Bread Festival on April 23 as a way to get the word out about CUSD’s in-house bakery.

“I met a couple of parents of Chico Unified students who had no clue we had our own bakery,” Simpson said of the festival. “And, after talking with them, they said, ‘Now that we know the food’s made from scratch, we’ll buy it [for our kids] more.’”

The bakery isn’t new; it started at Chico Country Day School at least 15 years ago, according to Vince Enserro, Nutrition Services director for CUSD. Eight or nine years ago, it moved into its current facility and since then has slowly acquired its cache of industrial-quality equipment.

The oven, for instance, is big enough to literally walk into. To create 3,000 muffins a day, the bakers pour their hand-made batter into portioning machines that ensure each one comes out the same size.

Despite the district’s best efforts to get the word out, some parents just don’t seem to be able to shake the image—or, the memories, perhaps—of unappealing, processed meals in school cafeterias. To many people, Enserro estimated, just because the district has its own bakery doesn’t mean it’s not making muffins from mixes and pizzas out of boxes.

“Parents would have a much different opinion on school food if they knew what we did,” he said. “We roast pork and turkey that goes into entrees. We make 200 to 300 gallons of fresh pizza sauce every week. That’s pretty elaborate for a school district.”

That’s not to say nothing comes premade, he added, such as the Chinese orange chicken entree (for which Enserro’s staff prepares, from scratch, brown rice with fresh vegetables). Nutrition Services also ensures quality—only 100 percent beef hamburger patties, for instance, and whole-piece chicken nuggets.

While elementary, junior and high schools have different menus, every elementary school kitchen, for example, will get the same products on any given day. At the high schools, students get 11 menu options, and the menus change every three months. In the interim, Simpson and his crew get to try out new entrees.

“We try to offer more variety, to expand what we do here. We see what the kids like, and then we work with the ingredients to make sure they fit within the guidelines,” Simpson said.

By guidelines he means nutritional recommendations, as set forth by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Those recommendations are then taken into consideration by the district’s Nutrition Services Department, headed by Enserro, who is also a trained chef. For instance, each meal should include 2 ounces of protein and each bread product should use at least 51 percent wheat flour. Fruits are served fresh and whole and are sourced locally. Sodium is limited, as is sugar.

Jackie Coats, who’s worked as a cafeteria assistant at Chico Unified for over 30 years, offered a concrete example. Inside the bakery’s spacious walk-in freezer—lined with racks of muffins and bagels and the like, ready to be shipped to school sites and baked fresh the next day—she picked up a cheese pizza.

“If this pizza is cut into eight slices, each slice has 2 ounces of cheese—or protein,” she said.

Simpson described Coats as the MacGyver of the CUSD bakery team, which includes three other bakers. In addition to making all the pizzas—including dough and sauce from scratch—she handles special orders, such as preparing lunches for Saturday schools and making other sauces as cafeteria needs arise.

“There are quite a few of our students who may go home and not get a meal,” Enserro said. “We are that bridge, or that gap, every single day. And we’re fortunate enough that everyone who works in our department is super-committed to that: to having the freshest fruits and vegetables and the best ingredients we can find.”