Lodi’s Warren Sun Wants a Cooking Kitchen in Every School

Lodi, California

The town of Lodi was founded, as so many of California’s Central Valley towns were, around the coming railroad.  It began in 1869, set in sandy ground that stretched for miles with ample ground water, and the crops and the farmers prospered almost immediately.

Initially, the new farmers planted wheat and they were able to dry farm it – that is, without irrigation – through the winter.  Along with wheat, farmers planted smaller amounts of acreage to other grains, row crops, and grapes. When wheat prices dropped due to cheaper wheat coming in from the Midwest, some enterprising farmers turned to watermelon, which turned out to be a lucrative crop until the 1890s when the water table began to drop, and irrigation systems using water from the nearby Mokelumne River were not yet in place.
Looking for yet another crop, farmers turned to wine grapes, which had historically done well in the area, and a new industry was born – one that continues to develop and thrive today. Lodi is home to some of American’s largest and most recognizable wine names – including Robert Mondavi, who grew up in Lodi, and founded the Woodbridge winery, and Oak Ridge, Lodi’s oldest winery, which was initially a cooperative and is now family owned. Today, the Lodi Appellation is the largest in the United States, with over 100,000 acres in premium grapes, such as Zinfandel, Chardonnay, and Syrah, as well as lesser known varietals suited to warm climates, like Vermentino and Tempranillo.

Warren Sun, Food Service Director, Lodi Unified School District, Lodi, CA

Origin: China

“We’re in a revolution. Now it’s time. We need a healthy school lunch – let’s do it. I think we are on the right track – provide choices for kids, freshness, and keep sustainable, looking for long term success.”  He believes that school food service, with healthy, good tasting meals, nutritious, and well-marketed so the students actually eat them, can have a favorable impact on the epidemic of childhood obesity.
How to get there? Improve the food, have full kitchens in every school where scratch cooking occurs daily, and market the new school lunch so the students enthusiastically embrace them. At right is an example of the kind of equipment Sun is having installed to allow for real food cooked from scratch in even the smallest of his kitchens. Sun created a basic equipment list for cooking for each of his school kitchens. We’d think he’s on to something big.

Sun has been ten years at the Lodi Unified School District, and, as soon as he arrived, he got underway making changes. He immediately added choices to the menu, which tripled participation in school lunch. Five years ago, he instituted a universal free breakfast at every school. Last year he put back $4 million in generated revenue to continue his program of renovating kitchens and serving lines. He has a new Menu Development Research Committee that includes kitchen cooks and supervisors, and that partners with the staff and students from the district’s culinary arts program.

The Menu Development Research Committee comes up with and reviews new recipes, a lot of them contributed by his staff, which are then tested.  “My vision of the future is to empower our staff and their skills, allow them to develop recipes and to menu them. A recent dish created by a student and brought to the committee for consideration is Castleblanco Pasta Bread Bowl. “I thought it was very, very good, very attractive, “ says Sun, “a spicy sauce, with chicken and pasta, served in a hollowed out bread bowl.”

One of the biggest challenges Sun tells us, is marketing the new school lunch. “We don’t want to just make good tasting, nutritious food. We want the students to eat it.” He says attractive names are one way to market. “So, instead of Catfish and Fries, we have Baja Spicy Fish Taco.”

We agree that sounds more exciting and interesting, more like the kind of food you would get at a dine-in restaurant, which is part of Sun’s aim.
When Sun was 22 years old, he came to the United States from China, from a city near Shanghai.  He was an agriculture student at California State University, Fresno, but switched to major in nutrition.  “Food seemed to me to be the number one thing to good health.” He had envisioned himself working in the health care field, but when he took a job as a dietician at Kings Canyon School District, he realized how much more he could do working with young people in a school setting rather than in a hospital where people were already sick.

“I feel strongly about full cooking kitchens at all 38 kitchens, which allow us to cook fresh, and allow creativity for our staff. Our pantries are changing. Soy sauce and sesame oil are now pantry basics. Here, Asian food is always popular – students like the spiciness.” On Thursdays, schools have an Asian bar, which includes choices like Kung-Pao Chicken and Teriyaki Chicken over rice, and one of the most popular soups on the menu, Enchilada Soup, reflects the ethnic diversity of the district’s student population.

Warren Sun is an innovator to watch.

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