No tater tots? Schools offer farm-to-table meals

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For most American students, school lunch consists of bland, mass-produced, reheated meals that most would rather skip. But a small but growing number of school districts are upgrading their cafeteria menus with organic local, grass-fed meats and made-from-scratch recipes that defy the image of inedible school food.

In Northern California’s Mount Diablo Unified School District, culinary manager Josh Gjersand is using the skills he learned cooking at several Michelin-starred restaurants to reimagine what school lunch can be.

“When you think of schools and you think of the cafeterias, they should look like restaurants. They should feel like restaurants and not fast food chains,” said Gjersand, who changed careers after serving a wagyu beef-and-caviar crowd lost its luster during the pandemic.

The Mount Diablo students are benefiting from a trend away from mass-produced, reheated meals. Its lunch menus are filled with California-grown fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats and recipes that defy the image of inedible school food.

On a recent day in January, Gjersand and his cafeteria staff prepared new dishes for students to taste-test at Mount Diablo High School. Among the offerings were a baguette sandwich with Toscano salami, Monterey Jack cheese and fresh arugula and Mexican-style flautas with free-range chicken simmered in chipotle broth.

The experimental items were a hit with students participating in the taste test. Some of those dishes could be incorporated into the regular cafeteria men.

“Serving this on a regular basis demonstrates and proves to us as students that we’re being seen, we’re being valued and we’re being respected,” said junior Anahi Nava Flores.

Still, among American schoolchildren, they are in the lucky minority. The emphasis on meals made from scratch requires significant investment and, in many areas, an overhaul of how school lunchroom kitchens have operated for decades. Supply chain disruptions tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation have only made it harder on school nutrition directors, widening gaps in access to affordable, high-quality food.

School meals also are entirely free for students in California, one of several states that have been paying to keep the meals free to all students. Most states have gone back to charging for school meals since a federal, pandemic-era program that offered universal free school meals until this school year.

Increases in money from California’s state government made it possible for Mount Diablo to buy healthier, fresher ingredients and hire GjersanD.

The school’s nutrition director, Dominic Machi, works with local farms, bakers, creameries and fishermen to supply almost all ingredients used by its schools, which serve 30,000 students from wealthy and low-income communities east of San Francisco.

The chef’s recent daily specials have ranged from BBQ spare ribs to fresh-caught red snapper on a whole-grain brioche bun.

At Mount Diablo High School, there are still hot dogs and hamburgers, but the meats are grass-fed.

“So school food service has been known somewhat to be a black sheep in food service and has been always at the lower scale. What we’re trying to do here is trying to really bring up that and change that perception by bringing in organic product, bringing in grass fed proteins when we can, bringing in local whenever possible,” said Machi, who worked at fine-dining restaurants before joining the school district.

School systems elsewhere can only dream of such offerings.

In a national survey of 1,230 school nutrition directors published on Jan. 11, nearly all said the rising costs of food and supplies was their top challenge this year, while more than 90% said they were facing supply chain and staffing shortages, both of which make it harder to serve healthy food.

The survey by the School Nutrition Association, which represents school nutrition directors nationwide, also found soaring levels of student lunch debt at schools that have returned to charging for meals. It found $19.2 million in lunch debt at 847 schools. The association is urging Congress to resume free breakfast and lunch nationwide.

Making food from scratch isn’t just healthier, it’s cheaper, many school nutrition directors say.

But that’s only possible when schools have kitchens. A national shift away from school kitchens began in the 1980s, which ushered in an era of cost cutting and mass-produced, processed school food. Pre-made meals delivered by food service companies meant schools could do away with full-time cafeteria staff and with kitchens, in favor of units that reheat boxed or frozen food.

Starting with legislation approved in 2021, the state has committed to spending $650 million annually to supplement federal meal reimbursements, which can be spent on food, staff, new equipment and other upgrades. Additionally, there are hundreds of millions of dollars available for kitchen infrastructure and for schools that commit to cooking from scratch and buying from California farmers.

The Lodi Unified School District in California’s Central Valley is also upgrading its cafeteria menus to serve its mostly low-income students.

“We’re actually able to address farm to table, we call it farm to school. And because we’re able to bring in fresh local produce and to source some of our main entrees and ingredients locally from companies that are in our area or county or in the state of California,” said Nancy Rostomily, nutrition services director, Lodi Unified School District.

The district also strives to educate its students about food and farming. Its elementary schools regularly host “farmers markets” where elementary school students can take home a bag of fresh fruits and vegetables and learn about agriculture from one of its vendors, Loren Werth, president of Food 4 Thought.

“So what the school districts are getting from me is straight from the farm directly. So we are a packer-shipper, so everything comes from the field and we run it down our line and it goes straight out to the school district within days,” Worth said in between helping students pick out produce to take home.