Esparto’s Natalie Zentner grew up on a cattle ranch

Blog.Esparto.Natalie.2.IMG_0368NATALIE ZENTNER, COOK, Esparto K-8 School, Esparto Unified School District, Esparto, CA

Origin: Esparto

Natalie grew up on the family cattle ranch where there was always a big garden. “We ate what was raised on the ranch – cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, beef, everything.” When we asked her what her favorite cut of beef was she didn’t hesitate – “Porterhouse steak.”

But steaks aren’t so much in the picture anymore. Instead, it’s boneless, skinless chicken prepared multiple ways, usually baked, plus plenty of vegetables and fruits. And, she gets a lot of her vegetables from her dad on the family ranch who grows just about everything in his garden. “I steam the vegetables, or bake them with a little olive oil. I mash cauliflower like potatoes, and we eat lots of zucchini, and now, with spring, asparagus and artichokes. We miss corn and tomatoes, but it won’t be long until it’s their season.”

Blog.Esparto.Beans.2.IMG_1948Are the kids she serves at Esparto Elementary eating as healthily as she and her family are, we asked. “Yes, the meals are much healthier now with the new regulations. The kids get a fruit and a vegetable every day.”  She took us into the lunch room, and lifted the lid of a steamer. The aroma of well-seasoned pinto beans wafted into the air. Natalie smiled. “They smell good, don’t they? I season them myself with cumin, onion powder, chile powder, cayenne, a little salt, and McCormick Taco Mix. I thought the kids were too little to notice the smell, but they did.”

Natalie went on to say that since she has started seasoning the beans, consumption has gone way up. In the beginning, before she started seasoning the beans, she was serving 2 big cans. Now that the beans are fully-flavored and have an enticing aroma, she’s had to increase the amount she prepares. “Last week I opened 6 cans and ran out. Today I’ve got 8 cans worth. We’ll see if it’s enough. One little boy said to me as I was serving him, ‘Oh, that smells so good.’ And that made me feel really good.”

The school lunch count at her school will be increasing as the migrant farm workers and their children return to the Esparto area to work on the farms during harvest in and around the town’s rural region that includes the Capay Valley. Natalie’s base school lunch count at her K-8 school is about 280 students served and will soon rise to about 330.

Blog.Esparto.tortillas.2.IMG_1947So, there will be even more students attracted to the pinto beans, served with fresh flour tortillas, thanks to Natalie’s creative seasonings.

Favorite tool: Stove

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Esparto’s Cathy Miller Cooks from Scratch

Esparto.CathyMiller.P1040119CATHY MILLER, Lead Cook, Esparto Unified School District, Esparto, CA

Origin: Capay Valley, CA

Cathy Miller is at home in a big kitchen, cooking from scratch. She grew up on a 300 acre ranch in the lush Capay Valley, just a stone’s throw from the small rural community of Esparto where she works. “My grandparents lived on the ranch too and my grandmother taught me to cook by handful.” On the ranch there were often a lot of people to feed, and later, Cathy raised her own family. “Food is my strong point and what I do best.”

Blog.Esparto.brocolli.P1040083The day we visited Cathy at the middle school kitchen which also serves as a central kitchen for the district, Cathy was steaming broccoli and carrots to go into an Asian-type rice bowl (pictured left) that was going to be served for school lunch. “You can buy Asian style vegetables frozen, but these are fresh. The frozen ones turn to mush.” We agree with her. The flavor of Cathy’s rice bowl was delicious and texture, perfect.

Blog.Esparto.CentralKitchen.P1040092Cathy has a strong food background and worked in the Woodland Unified School District Nutrition Services for almost 10 years before accepting a promotion to a security position. Then, in 2013, she saw there was an opening at the Esparto school district and here she is, back in school food service. Pictured left is the Central Kitchen in which she cooks, one of the most well equipped we’ve seen.

“I love working with kids. That is why I do this work. I think they need me. I try to bond with them, as a friend and a confidante, but still an authority figure. If I use my big-girl voice, they don’t want to hear it.”


Miss Cathy, as she is known, told us a story that illustrates her compassion and dedication to the students she serves and reflects in many ways other stories that we have heard from the now nearly 100 food service workers we have interviewed across California.”I had a kid in the Woodland school district. Everyone wrote him off –mean, foul, drugs. I never raised my voice to him and finally I built a bond of trust with him. He got kicked out of school. I pulled him aside on his last day of school. ‘You prove them wrong,’ I said to him. He eventually got his diploma and a job, and he came back and thanked me. I know I can make a difference, even if only one kid. It is worth it.”  No doubt Cathy has made a lot of difference in many young people’s lives.

“I was the homeless liaison in Woodland. I knew which kids were homeless and I got them in that lunch line. Truly remember, it’s about the kids, and that school lunch might be the only hot meal they get.”

Cathy’s dedication is remarkable not only in terms of the quality of the fresh cooked meals she helps to put on the students’ plates, everyday, but in terms of her compassion and caring for the young people who trust her.

Blog.Esparto.CathyMiller.3P1040087 Favorite tool: oven

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Stacie Vasquez, Esparto’s Director is Perhaps the Youngest in CA


Blog.Esparto.Almonds.IMG_6550Esparto is a small rural community at the mouth of the Capay Valley in Yolo County, west of highway 505. The community hosts an annual almond festival in honor of the blossoms, and now has an Almond Trail as well. Many of the parents of the school district’s students work on the organic farms in the valley. Many of those farms are also familiar household words for many years to fine diners in the San Francisco Bay Area: Riverdog Farm, Full Belly Farm, Capay Organics, and Seka Hills, to name a few. The area is also now rich in olive oil and vineyards in addition to the orchards, citrus groves and field crops.

Blog.Esparto.Stacie.2.P1040165STACIE VASQUEZ, Food Service Director, Esparto Unified School District, Esparto, CA

Stacie took over the director’s position in late fall of 2013 and she is working hard to bring the valley’s produce into her school kitchens and onto the student’s plates, as well as serving up the kind of food she knows the students like. The salad bars have sliced jicama with fresh lime and chili powder, for example, and she makes her Mexican rice from scratch, the way she does for her family at home, incorporating minced white onions into the dish.

At only 23 years old, Stacie is nevertheless a veteran of the food service business, where she’s been working since she was  15 ½. Her first job was at the venerable Bill & Kathy’s Restaurant in Dunnigan, a valley icon along Highway 5, now sadly closed. “I worked there, and then when Denny’s opened in town, I got a job there.” Working first as a hostess, then as a server, Stacie, at that point only 16, heard about an opening for an assistant manager at Denny’s, and thought to herself, why not? I can do that.

Blog.Esparto.citrus.IMG_0535And she did, continuing as assistant manager until taking a job as Kitchen Manager in Winters Unified School District, like Esparto also in Yolo County, under Director of Nutrition Services, Cathleen Olson, herself a former chef, caterer, and restaurateur in Davis. “I learned a lot there,” Stacie said, “working in a school lunch program that was gradually shifting to increasing fresh and local foods, buying first from a local distributor and then direct from local farms,” which is her goal now at Esparto.

“In Winters, I worked hands on, chopping, washing, everything, plus training staff. I found out that when you chop an onion correctly, you can save 3 to 5 minutes, for example, and every minute adds up. That helps to give you that extra time you need to prep fresh foods and to cook from scratch. I know firsthand there is time to increase the amount of scratch cooking we do at Esparto.”

Blog.Esparto.Stacie.4.P1040196Stacie, pictured left in orange with some of her staff in her beautiful central kitchen, looked long and hard at the job opening for Director, Food Services at Esparto Unified School District before applying. “The position was still open after 4 months. A friend at work said, ‘Go for it. You’re competitive and want to move up. It’s an opportunity. Do it.’ I talked it over with my husband, and on the last day of the posting, I applied.” And she got the job.

Blog.Esparto.district.P1040200We asked her about the school lunch menu. “It was written and submitted before I was hired. But next year, I’ll get to write my own.” You could tell she could hardly wait to begin the formal revamping, shaping it to her vision of more local food, more fresh food, and more scratch cooking. “Right now, we can be creative with the daily specials, and those are going really well. Dishes like Mandarin Chicken, and on Fridays, we do a potato bar. We are getting a lot of the teachers and administrators as well as school office staff eating here too, which is good role modeling for the students and great for my bottom line. And all the schools have salad bars. And we do Harvest of the Month, featuring a different fruit and vegetable each month.”

We’ve had the pleasure the last 2 years of working with Stacie and her staff, providing professional development cooking lessons that feature CA Specialty Crops, through a grant received by Yolo County Agricultural Commissioner John Young’s office, from CA Department of Food and Agriculture.

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Paula Tapia Cooks Everyday, and Has for Years

Blog.WestSac.PaulaPAULA TAPIA, COOK MANAGER, Westmore Oaks Elementary School, Washington Unified School District, West Sacramento, CA Origin: Colorado Talking with Paula and watching her smiling and laughing as she serves her students, it is hard to believe that she dropped out of school at 14 and lied about her age so she could get a job to feed her 5 younger siblings. “We grew up poor, and if it hadn’t have been for school lunch, we would have starved,” Paula told us. The job was at a Chinese restaurant, and I’d never even eaten Chinese food, let alone cooked it. ” She told us how her employers at the restaurant showed her how to make egg rolls with carrots, sprouts, cabbage, bamboo shoots, garlic onions, and hot sauce, all cooked up together and then rolled up and fried in oil until golden brown.. “ When my son comes back from Colorado, he asks me to please make egg rolls,” she said, laughing as she recounts the story, adding that she wishes she could make those eggs rolls as school. So do we. Blog.WestSac.Paula2

Paula has been in the restaurant business ever since that first job, back in 1972. She’s done waitressing, cooking, on-site catering, including a stint cooking at the Sacramento area private club, Ducks Unlimited, where she cooked wild game. Was her destiny foreshadowed by her maiden name, Cook?  It might have been, because Paula loves to cook, whether at home for her family or for what she refers to as her community, the students and adults at West Sacramento’s Westmore Oaks Elementary School.


Blog.WestSac.Paul.Saladbar“I have a gorgeous salad bar. I put everything on it that I can get my hands on, with even more options for the older kids. You have to train these kids. They don’t know what a lot of these fruits and vegetables are. They don’t get them at home. Their favorites are the strawberries and the grapes.” We raved about her salad bar, one of the most colorful and appetizing we’ve seen. Paula beamed proudly. “The salad bar is my favorite – I like it colorful and it has to look good. Presentation is 50 % of attracting the kids to eat it. ” else does she cook in her kitchen (pictured left)? She prepares all kinds of different soups, Mexican tacos, and Portuguese chili that she doctors up with sausage, mushrooms, spices, garlic and cumin. “We have awesome pizzas. We get cheese, and then add our own toppings.” Her philosophy is simple and one that we heartily agree with. “If you’re not going to eat it, don’t serve it.” And, there’s nothing we saw in Paula’s kitchen that we wouldn’t be happy to eat – if only she had those egg rolls, too.

Blog.WestSac.Paula.jicamaFood education, which is part of Paula’s mission, is, we believe, one of the key educational opportunities to be found in the school lunch room. Pictured left is a tray of jicama wedges with fresh lime on her salad bar. When we asked her how she does food education, she replied that she talked to the kids about what she was serving, what they were eating, and takes every chance presented to teach the students about food. “I have posters that I get online. They tell you all about the nutrition and why it’s good for you. I keep working with the kids on eating healthy. It’s a long process, and you’re working against the odds with some of these poor little babies. But it does make a difference.” Paula is clearly a dedicated woman, making a difference, every day.

In her district, under the direction of Kari Pina, Director, Food Services, almost every kitchen is a cooking kitchen, with capable people such as Paula cooking, ordering, and welcoming the students for a colorful, flavorful meal in a cheery, clean, well lit lunch room.

Blog.Alameda.knifeFavorite tool: Sharp knife, but she loves all her equipment from mixers to stoves.

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Rosie Huizar and team are scratch cooking


ROSE MARIE HUIZAR, Cafeteria Manager 2, River City High School, Washington Unified School District, West Sacramento, CA

Origin: Sacramento

Stepping into the gleaming River City High School kitchen, fully outfitted with stove tops, convection ovens, walls of pots and pans, and a long length of sinks, it is immediately evident this is a serious cooking kitchen. Not surprisingly, the kitchen is managed by a serious cook, Rosie Huizar. Rosie grew up in a home headed by her Puerto Rican mother and Mexican father, and their house was filled with the scent and taste of good food, all homemade. There was, she told us, always homemade soup. “I took right after my mother. For my soups, I throw in some carrots, grate some fresh corn, add garbanzos, and then I spice it up with chilies.”

Homemade soups are just one of the many housemade specialties of River City High School. The soup of the day might be Potato and Leek, Chicken Noodle, or maybe a spicy vegetable version, but there is always  hot, nourishing soup available in the cafeteria’s food court setting where up to 1400 students come in daily for lunch. The campus is closed, so no one leaves and all students eat lunch at school.

At a huge, commercial wok installed behind the cafeteria’s service counter, a staff member cooks up vegetable-laden, fresh stir-fries. There’s a pizza station – always popular – plus an array of sandwiches and wraps, an extensive salad bar, and each day a different manager’s choice. The day we visited the manager’s choice was a freshly made burrito, plump with savory beans, rice and chicken, folded together with a just-right spiced red sauce, worthy to be served in any restaurant, and enjoyed by many of the school’s staff as well as students.

As part of our consulting work, we’ve given a series of professional development cooking classes for Washington Unified School District, under the direction of their food service director, Kari Pina. The classes are held in Rosie’s kitchen. When we asked her how she liked the classes and if she found them useful, she replied, “I love the classes. I’ve gone home and tried every recipe we’ve made here – then I take the less time-consuming ones and use them in my cafeteria. I’ve made a lot of the stuff we make in our lessons for the kids — the orange chicken, butternut squash two ways – one mixed with carrots and one steamed – the salad dressings and some of the soups. I scale up the recipes from family style no problem. I’m always cooking and I love to cook.”

It’s a testimony to the quality of the food at River City High School that, according to Rosie, quite a few of the teachers buy lunch in the cafeteria, along with the students. “We are seeing an increase in both the number of students and teachers,” she says. “I see a lot of kids eating salads – we’ve totally gotten away from iceberg here.” A quick look into her walk-in refrigerator provides testimony to that.

Rosie has been with the district 19 years, starting working a few hours a day when her daughter began pre-school. “Back then, we really cooked. We cooked off whole turkeys, made our own gravy – really a much better flavor – and real mashed potatoes, plus a homemade roll and canned corn or beans.” All the kitchens in the Washington School District still bake, however, and we wouldn’t be surprised one of these days to see a whole turkey coming out of one of Rosie’s kitchen’s ovens.

Favorite tool: The oven

 Blog.WestSac.Rosie.ServingRosie serving







Blog.WestSac.Rosie.Tostada The great tostada she makes







Blog.WestSac.Rosie.WokHer wok







Blog.WestSac.Rosie.PizzaHer pizza oven — cooking everything from scratch, pizzas, a daily soup, salad dressings, salsas.

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Seussian Cooking for All

Recipes from Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook By Georgeanne Brennan Photographs by Frankie Frankeny TM & Copyright © 2006 by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P. Text copyright © 2006 by Georgeanne Brennan (excluding Dr. Seuss excerpts) Photographs copyright © 2006 Frankie Frankeny (excluding Dr. Seuss images) Recipes provided: Green Eggs and Ham; Cat’s Sticks Mix; Noodle-Eating-Poodle Noodles


Seussian cooking at home, while reading one of Dr. Seuss’ more than 40 books will enchant your children and remind you of the days when you first discovered the rhymes and times of the inimical Dr. Seuss. Seussian cooking at school, with books on display along the lunch line helps link food, fun, and learning. 

March through June 30, 2014 three recipes from the best-selling Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook, are available here to download for free in family size, or in Nutrikids format, right here on “Who’s Cooking School Lunch?”


The author of the best-selling Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook is Georgeanne Brennan, James Beard award –winning author and co-founder of Who’s Cooking School Lunch? The book is chock full of healthy, fun and wacky recipes inspired by the beloved Dr. Seuss books. School meals can be a fun, healthy and delicious too, and connected to the classroom.
Help us get the word out about your creativity in participating in this cooking celebration of Dr. Seuss-inspired recipes. Send photos of your school district or child care site’s meal to We’ll select from them and post.


From Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook by Georgeanne Brennan with photographs by Frankie Frankeny
TM & copyright © 2006 by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.
Text copyright © 2006 by Georgeanne Brennan (excluding Dr. Seuss excerpts)
Photographs copyright © 2006 by Frankie Frankeny (excluding Dr. Seuss images)
NOTE: Recipes may not be reposted on any other sites, per the publisher, Random House.
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It’s Time for Green Eggs and Ham for School Lunch: Recipes Here


It’s Time for Green Eggs and Ham and We’ve Got School-Size Recipes for You Here

This month and through June 30, three recipes from this delightful, healthy cookbook are available here on Who’s Cooking School Lunch? Every March on or near Dr. Seuss’ birthday, March 2, the National Education Association (NEA) celebrates with its Read Across American Campaign. We say cook across America as well, and serve these recipes from the Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook, adapted by our firm, Evans & Brennan, LLC, with permission from the publisher, Random House. Recipes meet National School Lunch Requirements. Each recipe can be downloaded as family size, or in Nutrikids format.

The author of the best-selling Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook is Georgeanne Brennan, James Beard award –winning author and co-founder of Who’s Cooking School Lunch? The book is chock full of healthy, fun and wacky recipes inspired by the beloved Dr. Seuss books. School meals can be a fun, healthy and delicious too, and connected to the classroom.
Help us get the word out about your creativity in participating in this cooking celebration of Dr. Seuss-inspired recipes. Send photos of your school district or child care site’s meal to We’ll select from them and post.

From Green Eggs and Ham Cookbook by Georgeanne Brennan with photographs by Frankie Frankeny
TM & copyright © 2006 by Dr. Seuss Enterprises, L.P.
Text copyright © 2006 by Georgeanne Brennan (excluding Dr. Seuss excerpts)
Photographs copyright © 2006 by Frankie Frankeny (excluding Dr. Seuss images)
NOTE: Recipes may not be reposted on any other sites, per the publisher, Random House.
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The Port City: West Sacramento and Energetic Karri Pina, District Food Service Director Sacramento, CA, Washington Unified School District.

West Sacramento sits directly across the Sacramento River from Sacramento, California’s capitol city, but it is its own entity, incorporated in 1987. The Port of West Sacramento, built in 1963, is one of the eleven ports in California and was meant to serve the agricultural industry of Northern California.  The Port ships primarily bulk agricultural products, mostly rice, and receives bulk cement and special projects.  The 43-mile long Deep Water Channel connects the Port to Suisun Bay, and from there to San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean so West Sacramento, an inland port, accesses the Pacific Rim.

WEst SAc.276763378_82a5775577_mWest Sacramento, connected to Sacramento by several bridges, is essentially a working class town and its employment has been dominated by warehousing, shipping, and farming.  During the 1980s it became a center for Russian émigrés and today the city has a population that is over 7% Russian ethnicity and over 2 % Ukrainian. It has a large population of Hmong and Mien people as well, some of whom are very active with the school district’s garden based learning program. The River Cats, minor league baseball team, plays in a new stadium overlooking the river, and is the Triple-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics.

Today the city is reinventing itself, with an increase in food and product driven industries, upscale markets, burgeoning new restaurants, and attractive urban housing alongside the taquerias, Russian bakeries, and agricultural supply stores.  The city is home to one of our sponsors, Capay Organic and Farm Fresh to You and they are very involved with selling to and supporting the West Sacramento school district, called Washington Unified School District. Karri Pina, the Food Service Director for West Sacramento’s Washington Unified School District, grew up here.

Blog.WestSac.KarriPKarri Pina, Food Service Director, Washington Unified School District, West Sacramento, CA

Diminutive and energetic, Karri  worked her way up into her current position, starting as a substitute while she was still in high school, as well as working as hostess and later a server at Bakers Square, a local restaurant. In September, 1996, following her high school graduation, she was hired by the school distinct as a typist-clerk and cashier in the kitchen. Less than 10 years later, in 2007, she was hired as the Food Service Director. “I’ve learned a lot by hands-on,” says the mother of four, who self-confessedly ‘runs a tight ship’ juggling work and children’s schedules, and completing an AA degree in Business from Sacramento City College while working. “I’m not from a family who went to college. I had to figure it out myself.”

Blog.WestSac.RHSkitchenAnd she certainly has. In addition to supervising 76 employees and serving 7,000 meals a day, she is working, at the school district’s request, to help develop a culinary curriculum for the district.  “We want to be working with our ‘ag’ program from ground to table.” Last year, she brought some students from the alternative education high school to work in the River City High School kitchen (a beautiful high school kitchen pictured left), a project she is passionate about.  “Working with alternative education students gives them some experience. It vests some of these borderline kids and it gives them a reason to go to school. This district has a great team with the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent.”

Blog.WestSac.VeraYermakovaWhen we asked about her staff, she had nothing but praise for them. “We like to figure out what works for each school population and give staff the ability to deliver it. I see each person’s individual assets.” Pictured left is Vera Yermakova, Cafeteria Assistant, River City High School, cooking Asian Stir Fry at the wok station. With 13 schools in the district, all with fully functioning cooking kitchens, Karri and her staff are capable of doing much that other districts, with limited, out-dated, or non-functioning facilities can’t. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be featuring two of her staff and their kitchens, exploring in depth what and how things are cooked and served, but we can tell you now, it is delicious.

Blog.WestSac.PeppersWhen we asked Karri if she could summarize her philosophy, she said, “Stick with what we know. Do the best for our students. They are the ones we are here to help. We are a support system for the classroom, whether we get credit or not. That’s my philosophy.”

From our observation, Karri is all about empowering her employees to deliver fresh, flavorful and healthy food in school meals, with as much cooking as possible.




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Monterey Peninsula’s Culinary Arts Class teaches students and cooks

Blog.Monterey.MichelleSorensenMichelle Sorensen, (pictured left) is Seaside High School’s Culinary Arts Instructor, at Monterey Peninsula Unified School District in northern California. She teaches both students and cooks in an exciting new program, started last year as a collaboration between high school principal Dr. Mary White, (no longer there), and Jennifer “Jenn” Gerard, Director of Student Nutrition Services for the district. “The class touches on healthy cooking as a life profession choice or as teaching life skills,” Jenn told us. “The principal and I formulated the program together – a win win for both nutrition services and the school.”


Blog.Monterey.CulinaryClassThe students in this high school class, under Michelle’s instruction, among other things, learn to develop recipes. If the recipes pass the taste and nutrition test they are given to Jenn and her team to scale up and put on the school menu. This past week, Jenn’s staff served up 5,000 entrees from one of the recipes the students developed and loved – Black Bean Tofu Enchiladas (click for NutriKids formatted recipe to serve 100.) Everything in the recipe is from scratch.  ”Everyone benefits,” says Jenn. “The students are getting the education and we are getting kid friendly food.” That’s the kind of entrepreneurial, creative thinking we’ve come to recognize as one of Jenn’s trademarks, and she couldn’t have a better instructor than Michelle teaming up with her on this.


Blog.Monterey.CulinaryClass.students3To start the program, Jenn and the principal pulled funding from everywhere. Donations came in from the community. The space was an old kitchen prep area that was refurbished into a cooking classroom out of the school’s budget. Once the program got on its feet the county funded it as a Regional Occupation Program (ROP).

Blog.Monterey.CulinaryClass.students1Michelle is a chef, and had been a caterer for years prior to being tapped for teaching this class. On the foggy, cold October day we visited her classroom, the students were cooking savory items from canned pumpkin, and developing soup recipes. They garnished their dishes, and presented their masterpiece, with a description of its recipe, to the class for everyone to taste.

Blog.Monterey.CulinaryClassSoupPictured left is one of the finished dishes of pumpkin soup. From our observation, this was a much loved class, and Michelle a skilled and admired instructor. We left immediately prior to lunch time; as we did, other students were filing into the classroom to eat their lunch there, with Michelle. There’s no substitute for a caring adult in a warm kitchen, who knows and calls you by your name and asks how your day is going.


Blog.Monterey.CulinaryClass.student2One particularly motivated student shared with us his goal to become a professional chef. His name is Maurice Bogety. “My family is from Jamaica, a little Cuban, African, Hispanic, and we like lemon, like I used here. Also I used toasted pepitos, garlic, salt, and pepper,”  he told us while we tasted his pumpkin soup, which was delicious, as they all were. We wouldn’t be surprised if he did become a chef. Since careers in school food service can have good hours and good benefits, we support the idea of culinary education programs at the high school and junior college level as a pathway to a career in school food service, as either staff or director. We’ve featured school food service directors on this blog as young as 23, and Jenn herself got her position at age 26! They are improving the flavor of school meals.

Blog.Monterey.JennSo just who are the cooks that Michelle is also teaching? Jenn (pictured left) shared with us that Michelle is providing cooking lessons to Jenn’s staff. The classes, held from 5-7PM, are voluntary on the part of staff and they are welcome to bring their family.  They cook a meal together and then go over to the other side, out of the kitchen and into the class dining room, pull out nicer dishes and have a meal together. Why does Jenn do this? “I believe in the power of meals together,” she tells us, ” everyone has a place at the table. There’s an importance to sharing a meal together.” Attendance is good. The staff we spoke with love the opportunity to learn new skills and flavors they can share with their family.

This concludes our feature on Monterey Peninsula Unified School District. We caught up with Jenn recently by phone — she told us that she had taken our blog posts on her staff, and blew them up with photos into a Word document and then had that made into a color poster, mounted,  so staff could post it in their cafeteria. Everyone loves the posters!

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Monterey’s “Miss Duckie’s” colorful kitchen

Monterey.DuckieDEBBIE ‘DUCKIE’ COTA, MANAGER, Del Red Woods K-5, Monterey Peninsula School District, Seaside, CA

Origin: Monterey

When you walk into ‘Duckie’s kitchen, you know you are in a warm, safe, happy place. It’s full of bright posters, colorful decorations, and loads and loads of ducks, everywhere. “Kids give them to me. I’ve never bought a one.” The children are smiling in the lunch line, no pushing or shoving, while Duckie reigns supreme at the cash register, calling each child by name, asking questions, checking on each and every one and they in turn call her ‘Miss Duckie’.

Blog.Monterey.Duckieskitchen“A lot of these kids have a brother or father in jail. If the kids have a bad day in class they come and vent with me. The other day a little boy in line was crying, and the boy behind him said, ‘you need a Duckie hug.’ ” this sign greeted us on the way in the back door to…Duckies Kitchen.


We were there around Halloween, and her decorations for that were every elementary school child’s dream — and in her kitchen to cheer them all up. When we asked her how she got her name she said that when she came to work at the school district, 33 years ago, there were a lot of Debbies, so one of the office staff decided she’d be Duckie instead of Debbie and the name stuck. Sicilian on her mother’s side and French on her father’s, she tells us about a childhood flavored with spaghetti, meat balls, and even sea urchins picked off the rocks and eaten on the spot. “My Nonna made pasta by hand,” Duckie tells us, “and I think the spaghetti here at school is pretty good, from an Italian viewpoint.” As we asked her more about the past she told us she remembered when she first started in school lunch work, there were bakers who made muffins and breads, cooks who cooked whole turkeys – “and we all wore white aprons.”

Blog.Monterey.Duckie's chow meinThe day we visited Duckie’s kitchen, the hot entrée was Chow Mein, which included a fortune cookie and was served with chopsticks. Duckie had made a specially decorated display to show it off, and not surprisingly the Chow Mein sold out, first thing.

“I do all the decorations myself,” Duckie told us. “I do it for the kids. I love these kids.” We didn’t see her secret stash of decorations for all seasons and any dish, but we can guess it is substantial. Her kitchen was a colorful delight to be in. The show –stopper of the day though, had to be the salad bar – once again, fully decorated.


Blog.Monterey.SaladbarOrganic Rainbow Carrots from nearby Coke Farm were featured, along with watermelon, and greens, and you could smell the aroma of the salad bar’s ‘Tango Peaches.’ We observed the students eating and enjoying the colorful carrots.


Blog.Monterey.DuckieKitchenposterIt’s not surprising that when we asked Duckie if there was something she’d like to share with school food service workers around the nation she said: “There’s a lot more to kitchen cafeteria work than just feeding and putting the food out.” There is no question that in Duckie’s kitchen there is a lot more than food being served.

Favorite tool: We would guess love and compassion — that’s what she’s using to serve her students the best food ever.


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