NATALIE ZENTNER, COOK, Esparto K-8 School, Esparto Unified School District, Esparto, CA
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.”
Are 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.
So, 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