If school meal programs are going to change in Western Nevada County, it’s time for parents and students to make their voices heard.
That’s the message organizers of the group Sierra Harvest sent to 70 parents and students who came out to eat at Ready Springs School on a cold, rainy night in February during an outreach event called Lunch for Dinner.
Carlos Trujillo of Farm to Table Catering served spaghetti with roasted autumn squash, mushroom and Applewood smoked bacon alongside a salad of mixed baby greens and vinaigrette.
“I bet a lot more people are going to eat hot lunches if it’s like this. That would be my favorite time of day,” said Samantha Robinson, 11, a student from Ready Springs who was sitting in the multipurpose room with her family and friends.
Almost half of the students went back for seconds.
It was the second Lunch for Dinner event organized by Sierra Harvest meant to show how school lunch meals could look (and taste) if the current system based on predominately frozen, re-heated packaged commodity foods went back to a more traditional “scratch cooking” model.
Seasonal ingredients used to prepare the Lunch for Dinner meal cost $1 per person, falling below the $3 price of a typical school lunch.
“A lot of schools in the nation are doing it. It’s not unique anymore,” said Trujillo, a father of children enrolled in Nevada City schools. His kids don’t eat school lunches.
Several years ago, Trujillo was the unit chef for a dining commons that fed 2,500 college students at the University of California, Davis, daily. Locally sourced and seasonal ingredients were used and everything was made from scratch, Trujillo said. He organized one of the first campus farm dinners.
Schools in Western Nevada County rely on a Central Kitchen without adequate equipment or sufficient staffing to cook from scratch now, said Aimee Retzler, co-director of Sierra Harvest.
Despite the infrastructure hurdles, Trujillo, also a Sierra Harvest board member, believes it’s possible to go back.
“Absolutely. It’s a mater of planning. … You can do a lot with a little,” and distribution is already in place, he said.
It’s also up to school administrators to support and direct the change, Trujillo added. In the year ahead, Sierra Harvest hopes to encourage parents and students who want to see a different kind of lunch menu to attend and speak at school board meetings.
Sierra Harvest (formerly Live Healthy Nevada County and Living Lands Agrarian Network) has worked for years to shift the food mindset of young people in area schools. Education continues from the ground up through an active Farm to School program that includes: on-site garden carts, farm and chef visits, monthly seasonal food tastings in more than 200 classrooms and occasional procurement of locally grown food for school lunches.
In 2013, Sierra Harvest sponsored Tony Geraci, star of the documentary, “Cafeteria Man,” to speak at SYRCL’s Wild and Scenic Film Festival.
Ultimately, the goal is to get fresh, affordable, scratch-cooked meals in all Nevada County schools. Supporters of the idea are well aware that such a revolution takes time.
Area schools lack basic kitchen equipment like dishwashers, stoves or ovens. Instead there are warming ovens and refrigerators that hold only milk cartons.
The days of cafeteria ladies serving lunch on a tray are long gone. Yet few parents speak up.
“Unless they’ve been to the lunchroom with their kids, they haven’t seen it,” said Retzler, who says it is one of the organization’s primary goals this year to get more families involved.
“If there’s a critical mass of people in the county that want to go back to scratch cooking, we believe we have the resources to go back,” said Retzler.
Upwards of 20 percent of Nevada County residents are struggling to put food on the table, according to Sierra Harvest data.
The central kitchen serves about 2,200 lunches to over 20 schools in nine school districts.
In 2011, between 30 to 50 percent of students who ate the lunches were enrolled in the federal free and reduced meal program.
For months, Sierra Harvest has waited for the green light from the Grass Valley School District Child Nutrition Services — the department that oversees the Central Kitchen — to move forward with a $40,000 grant that will supply four local schools with salad bars.
This week, Retzler will meet with Grass Valley Child Nutrition Services Director Suzanne Grass to work out the logistics of bringing salad bars to area schools.
Retzler says Sierra Harvest can provide the means for training food services staff and money for capitol upgrades.
The group has access to information and people who have successfully changed school lunch programs throughout the state.
There’s no need to look far for a model. Schools in Truckee have already begun to make the leap.
Tahoe Truckee Unified School District’s new food service director, Kat Soltanmorad, is working to reverse a department “in the red” while bringing healthier, more affordable meals to the lunch room.
Soltanmorad has put salad bars in schools and is using an approach called “speed scratch cooking.” Familiar to busy working parents, “speed scratch cooking” combines some partially prepared ingredients with fresh, resulting in a healthier end product with less sodium than wholly processed entrees.
“She’s doing what we want to do,” said Retzler.
To get their grassroots parent involvement campaign rolling, Sierra Harvest is considering adopting a school food liaison program, similar to the popular farm to school liaisons, in an effort to gauge on the ground what parents want for their children.
Sierra Harvest hopes to hold one more Lunch for Dinner before the end of the school year.
A Sierra Harvest survey of 92 middle school students found nearly 60 percent of students don’t purchase lunches because they don’t like the taste or they perceive the food to be of low quality and nutritional value.
Most of the students surveyed who do eat school lunches think it tastes “OK” or “terrible.”
“Our kids deserve the best we can give them and we have to ask, ‘are we giving them that right now?’” Retzler said.
Contact freelance writer Laura Brown at 530-913-3067 or firstname.lastname@example.org.