The city of Sacramento, California’s capitol, sits astride the confluence of two of the West’s great rivers, the Sacramento River and the American River. It is the gateway to both the Sierra Mountains and the rich, agricultural heartland of the Great Central Valley. The city was founded in 1848 around an embarcadero owned by John Sutter at that confluence and its waterways assured the city a key location in the lucrative trade and transport that rapidly established itself following the discovery of gold in 1849. The gold rush brought tens of thousands of immigrants from all over the world to California. Most of them stayed.
Today, Sacramento County remains a region of immigrants, with about 19% of the population, over 270,000, being foreign born. According to a recent study, the majority of the immigrants are from Mexico, the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam, and the Ukraine. This diversity is reflected in the school system as well, where, according to Nutrition Services Manager, Brenda Padilla more than 67 different languages are spoken.
It’s not surprising that Brenda Padilla, pictured at left in her office, was one of the 8 Californians to receive the 2012 “Health Happens Hero Award” from The California Endowment for her work in bringing healthier meals to students. And not just healthier, but tastier and more flavorful, which is especially appropriate since the City of Sacramento recently laid claim to being the Farm-to-Fork Capital of America.
“I’m not a fan of airplane food,” Brenda tells us. “We will always want our meals to have that home feel. We’re using whole muscle chicken for our chicken sandwiches, for example. That’s different than a breaded chicken patty. I hate barbeque chicken – it’s a mess, but the kids love it and so we do it.” We sampled her barbeque chicken lunch pictured left, and it is delicious. Her staff barbeque it outdoors so the aroma wafts into the classrooms, at least at the high school we visited. “We do our own tacos from scratch – the kids love this too, she tells us.”
Referencing the culturally diverse nature of the district, she says her students need more choices. “It’s not if, for me, but how.” And a part of the how is that the city of Sacramento passed a bond to build a central kitchen for the district. “We’ll be making our own salad dressings, our own soups, and we’ll have more control,” Brenda says. “We serve 40,000 meals a day, and many of our students come from economically and socially depressed situations. Having two hot, healthy meals a day is a big deal for them.”
In working with her staff at the 87 different school sites throughout the district, Brenda calls upon them to tell her what they can do, not what they can’t do. “I want to give them voice, and listen to them about what works. We’re trying new things today, and we’re taking stuff off the menu that doesn’t work.” We notice the bulletin board in her staff room, evidence of a group menu planning process, pictured left. She also has a sign in her office that says “No Stink.” Brenda’s working hard, like her staff, to bring good, flavorful food to the school lunch table. “None of us is perfect, and change is hard, but we’ve set expectations high.”
“A lot of our kids are socially and economically depressed,” she says. Having two hot, healthy meals a day is a big deal.” More than 67 % of the students in the 87 different school sites in the Sacramento City schools are eligible for free and reduced meals.