Pesto chicken and pulled pork sandwiches, Mediterranean pizzas, chicken Caesar and Thai wraps, sushi and a variety of composed salads are now on the menu at the NU Café creating a buzz among teachers, parents and students.
An incentive to get kids to stay on campus during lunch, the new offerings at Nevada Union High School are part of a bigger picture plan to get kids eating healthier while supporting local farms and meeting stricter and stricter state and federal nutrition guidelines.
On a recent morning, Kelli Wood, a lunch lady for 10 years at Nevada Union, and Assistant Manager Dayna Crowley, with the district for 20 years, flattened and rolled whole grain dough for 26 pizzas in anticipation of the day’s lunch crowd.
“I think the kids are going to eat a lot better than they did before. It makes me feel good,” said Crowley.
When school administrators first contemplated the idea of a closed campus during lunch, what they heard loud and clear from students was a demand for more food choices.
“They wanted tastier and healthier food,” said Dan Frisella, principal of Nevada Union.
A self-proclaimed health conscious eater who rarely ate school lunches in the past, Frisella now eats from the school’s cafeteria every day.
When the school’s food manager retired last year, administrators took a long look at the overall program and decided to make some changes. A meal program overseen by kitchen manager Theresa Ruiz at Bear River High School was getting noticed by parents for a back-to-basics, scratch-cooking style more reminiscent of home.
Nevada Joint Union High School District hired Ruiz as Director of Nutrition Services and in one week, she is already making waves at NU.
“The timing was really perfect. People have noticed and the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive from staff and students,” Frisella said.
“Students have been super excited about the addition of Way Yum Sushi and also the fresh salad bar. These are obviously healthier choices than bean and cheese burritos and processed chicken sandwiches. So far, I’ve also seen less discarded food on campus. They don’t eat what they don’t like, so this is a good sign,” said English Teacher Keri Kemble.
Theresa Ruiz has a long history in the food world. She owned and ran a restaurant, “Theresa’s Deli” in Truckee before coming to Western Nevada County where she has worked in NUHS District’s kitchens for 15 years.
Ruiz favors a “scratch cooking model” even though it usually takes longer. She chooses to do things the old fashioned way because she says it’s what people want.
“It seems like there’s a real demand all the way around. People are eating differently,” she said.
Rather than pay the cost to send government commodity foods to a processor to turn into frozen corn dogs, pre-cooked hamburger patties, pizzas and burritos, Ruiz takes the commodity foods raw and processes them in the kitchen. She cooks pots of beans, makes her own salsa, cooks chicken and pork, bakes biscuits and shreds blocks of cheese.
“That’s how programs with a kitchen are meant to work,” she said.
A recent guideline requires school food handlers to provide bread containing 51 percent whole grains. Ruiz has partnered with Truckee Sourdough who now supplies all the bread for the district and whole grain pizza dough. During her restaurant years, Ruiz worked just a couple doors down from the bakery.
“It’s really hard to find stuff. Truckee Sourdough really came through,” Ruiz said.
With the school year just beginning, the kitchen re-organizing will take time to settle into place. Shaking up an old system is bound to have a few kinks like long lines but those issues are being addressed, says Ruiz.
New staffing, new recipes, new cooking methods, etc. will require some patience by the hordes of teens and teachers who only have 38 minutes to grab a bite to eat.
In addition to cooking from scratch, Ruiz is working with consultant Chef Carlos Trujillo, board member of Sierra Harvest and BriarPatch Co-op, to procure locally grown produce from area farms. Sierra Harvest also donated a salad bar.
Already, peaches from Marysville, tomatoes form Greg’s Organics and a lettuce supplier is in the works. The goal this winter is to work with local farmers to gear up for next spring’s planting season.
“They can actually plant for the high school,” said Trujillo, who also runs the catering business, Farm to Table Catering.
For years he has cooked for large crowds and college campus settings. With a son who just started his freshman year at Nevada Union, Trujillo is excited about the new changes to the lunchroom menu.
“We’re kind of planning on the future here,” he said.
Contact freelance reporter Laura Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-913-3067.
“I think the kids are going to eat a lot better than they did before. It makes me feel good.”