A Fresh Look at Art and Ag at the National Farm to School Conference, Austin TX 2014

We recently caught up with Danielle Whitmore, YoloArts Executive Director, with whom our firm, Evans & Brennan,  works professionally on the Yolo Farm to School Project. She spoke at the National Farm to School Conference in Austin, TX to find out her take on what she experienced and how attendees responded to her message of art and agriculture.

“Dani” brings her thirty years of administrative experience, knowledge and tireless advocacy for the arts to benefit Yolo County.  With a professional background in the field of marketing and public relations, she promotes the relationships between artists and the community, while working to strengthen YoloArts’ partnerships with a keen eye on using art as a tool for economic development.

Evans & Brennan (E&B): You are the Director of the Yolo Arts Council. What is its purpose and how does this relate to agriculture and school food? Dani: YoloArts is dedicated to cultivating and enriching people’s lives through the arts. We accomplish this mission by supporting art education programs, exhibitions, galleries, businesses, ranches and public places with art – and use our signature program The Art and Ag Project to connect the arts to agriculture, food and now school food.

E &B: We understand this was your first time attending the conference and that you presented on a panel. What caused you to want to go? Dani: Any time YoloArts can lend a voice to the concept of art as a collaborative, community building tool we are pleased to present.  We believe in leveraging the power of the arts, culture and creativity to serve a community’s interest – The Art and Ag Project is a powerful combination of art, food, and community.

What is your message, with your Art and Agriculture Program, as it relates to school lunch and those who cook it every day? Did you get a good reaction on the panel? The panel was very interested in the unique connection this program offers. There are multiple opportunities to teach and connect but none better that reaching students.  The Art and Ag Program K-12 platform provides an educational opportunity – teaching the next generation about their agricultural heritage, the importance of land preservation and healthy eating in the context of creative experiences.  I also see this as an opportunity to introduce and educate kids on healthy foods.  In short a way to break down the yuckyness of a vegetable…you know make kale – cool.

What was the “feel” of the conference as a first time participant, and one who is indirectly related to a school lunch program? Were there unusual twists, speakers or sessions? The conference was a warm and inviting place to be….I mean we all love food right?  And I can talk about food anytime.  What I found interesting was the opening comments by the director.  She noted a key vision for this conference was the planners desire to bring the unexpected to the table…and they did…they brought art~ ! It was fun to watch the reaction as I introduced myself – I felt I represented the twist…in a good way!

What kind of food was served? Did it reflect the southern heritage of Austin, TX? Did you have BBQ? If so, what kind (pork or beef? Tomato or vinegar based?) The food was locally sourced and provided a great introduction to the region.  Quite frankly we all got full fast as we downed pulled pork sliders with coleslaw….I don’t recall the sauce….but it’s probably on my shirt somewhere! (J

Did you meet and interact with people from other regions around the country? What are serving in their cafeterias? How are they approaching farm to school any differently? Are they doing anything with art and agriculture that interested you? I had the pleasure of meeting many folks from all over the United States – Phoenix, Maine, Texas of course and California.  I found their work in cafeterias and school gardens really amazing, especially those who are growing and cooking their own food with students.  My fellow conference goers were keenly interested in including the art in their programming…it’s a concept they didn’t consider. I was surprised by the newness of the farm to cafeteria initiative – I didn’t realize it was so young.  But its strong…over 1,000 people attended this conference.  Amazing.

Yolo Arts Council recently did the design work for Yolo Farm to School’s soon to be launched Guidebook: California Specialty Crops: A Guide for Their Use in School Lunch. Was this good background for you at the conference? Why was your organization selected to do this and what does Yolo Arts Council bring to the table of more fresh flavorful and seasonal food in the school cafeteria? Yes thanks to Ann Evans and Georgeanne Brennan – YoloArts has the distinct opportunity to design the soon to be launched guidebook, which includes images of art we have commissioned or has been inspired by our county’s agriculture and local foods.  I believe it’s our passion for connecting through the arts that inspired Ann and Georgann to ask us.   Because of our unique and fortunate partnership with John Young, Yolo County Agriculture Commissioner – we are included in many key conversations, meeting and collaborative opportunities.  Not only was our work on the guidebook good background for the conference, it continues to support the role of our organization as a strong player in promoting healthy foods, the use of local farms and our county – creatively.

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Oregon: You’re Raising the Bar for School Food – Thanks!

OK, Oregon, way to go. It appears that your statewide additional $1.2 million for local food in schools is making a big impact. Other states take note.

We recently came across this article in Edible Portland, on high school Future Farmers of America, the Bend-LaPine School District and the local farmers market and culinary class working together to go piglet to plate in this district of 29 schools and 16,000 students. The kids even get a lesson for from local food experts on how to maximize the pig for the number of students they feed each day — before they butcher. Read more.

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Kids Love the Salad Bar at Sonoma Valley High School

Melinda Beasley, Food Service Assistant II, Sonoma Valley High School, Sonoma Valley Unified School District

 Origin: Grand Rapids, Michigan

 A graduate of Sonoma Valley High School where she now works, Melinda has been with the district 15 years. “I love Sonoma,” she tells us before the rush of serving 400 students in 10 minutes begins. “It’s a repeat of my childhood. I now have 2 grown children. This is a tight knit community and I realize just how special it is.”

Melinda learned to cook when she got married and immediately liked the artistic side of food. Although she grew up in a large Italian family -her mom had eight kids- she says she did not grow up cooking alongside her mother. Her mom worked, and Melinda says her sisters Ann and Sue influenced her taste in food growing up.

How school food service professionals find their way into their job interests us greatly. Often we hear women, in particular, saying it is a job born of wanting to work close to their children. Melinda’s story fits that description.

She had children growing up and decided to earn some extra money to help with finances. She began as a yard duty, got to know the kitchen ladies and they asked her if she’d be interested in coming to work in the kitchen. She started part time and then became first a substitute and then became full time. “It’s a perfect job with perfect hours for a working mom,” she says, as if in echo to hundreds we have also heard tell that tale, and who like Melinda, love working with the students and food so much they stay far past their children’s growing up years.

“Back then we served French fries,” she reflects when we ask her about the changes she’s seen since 1999. “My first job as a sub was to clean the fry machine. Now we bake the fries. Pepsi has gone as well as the vending machines with doughnuts.”

Chef Cody Special Meat Ball Sandwich

The fries and sugary stuff needed to go she tells us in all seriousness. “I’m so happy with the fruit and veggie bar. The salad bar got off to a slow start, but now it’s popular. All our food is grab and go except for Friday’s — when Chef Cody serves up his specials.” Everyone we’ve spoken with in the district seems happy about Chef Cody’s work — that would be Cody Williams, the Food Service Manager who arrived one year ago fresh from 10 years in the hospitality industry, including most recently the Napa Valley landmark Mustards Grill, Cindy Pawlcyn’s beloved restaurant.

One thing we’ve seen throughout school districts over the past several years is a cleaning up of ingredients. Melinda proudly explains that Sonoma’s meats are 100% beef – no additives or fillings. And, she comments on the student’s evolving tastes as she exposes them to new and different flavors, “They are getting to know artichoke hearts and edamame. Our kids are fortunate. They are getting world class bread. Our sandwiches sell out every day now.”

What would Melinda like her fellow school food service professionals across the United States to know? “I love kids to try something new. We put out new foods on a repetitive basis to increase familiarity, but like your mom would say at home, I tell ‘em, ‘just try a bite.’”

Favorite Kitchen Tool: “I do love the Robot Coupe [food processor] but I’ll go with a kitchen timer you can hear from another room.”

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Fresh Fish Tacos for School Lunch in Monterey’s Bay to Tray Program

Update on Monterey Peninsula School District – Special Post from Jenn Gerard, Director of Nutrition Services 

We caught up with Jenn recently, whom we featured earlier, and she told us that Monterey Peninsula School District is now  offering students locally caught and freshly prepared Fish Tacos (click for recipe link) with a Cilantro Coleslaw for lunch as part of our Bay to Tray program.  “The Bay to Tray program acts like a Farm to School program, but focuses the efforts on the bounty of our oceans,” she told us, “which many students can view outside of their classroom windows.”  She tested the Fish Tacos with the high school students, found the prep to be easier than expected, and sold out before any other entree – including our homemade pizzas!  “The next test came at the elementary level,” she said, “where we were wiped out after 2nd grade, with student excitement and interest unexpectedly high toward the new menu feature.”

Jenn sees this as a foundation to educating students on food, habitat and our diet’s impact on the environment and vice versa.  By creating dishes that students get excited, we hold their attention and the ability to educate.  Her program is currently engaging in dialogue with local fishermen to have them make appearances in classrooms throughout the district next year.


 And, guess what? The district is hiring a culinary specialist! Details below.

“Monterey Peninsula Unified School District Nutrition Services is searching for a dynamic and experienced Culinary Specialist to provide culinary leadership and development in the school meal program.  This unique position will guide and inspire the development and promotion of menu concepts & recipes, staff training and student engagement for quality, healthy and financially solvent school meals and caterings within MPUSD and the community.”

The perfect candidate will be an engaging communicator and facilitator – in and out of the kitchen – with relevant culinary education and at least three years of experience in commercial food preparation and/or operations.

This full-time, managment position will be based in Monterey, California and begins immediately upon hire.  Starting salary is $53,466.00, plus benefits, based on a 222 day contract.

Full job description and application instructions are available at: http://edjoin.org/viewPosting.aspx?postingID=579867&countyID=27&onlineApp=1

Closes 4pm on Wednesday, June 25th.

Contact Jenn Gerard, Director of Nutrition Services, 831-392-3947 

or jgerard@mpusd.k12.ca.us for more information about the position and MPUSD’s Nutrition Department.

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Sonoma’s Irma Barragan’s Chopped Salad Plus Bay Area School Lunch Stars

Irma Barragan, Kitchen Manager

Prestwood Elementary School, Sonoma Valley Unified School District

Origin: Michoacan, Mexico

Irma, who has been with the district eight years, is from a big ranch outside a small rural town near Michoacan, Mexico. She grew up surrounded by big trees of mangos, bananas and tamarinds, as well as tomatoes, chiles and cucumbers.

We meet her in her kitchen, but with all the activity going in preparation for lunch, she quickly suggests we go out the back door, where the sunshine is streaming through tall redwood trees that shade a group of picnic tables. There we settle in for a quick chat with Irma.

She has always liked to cook everything. “I saw how much my Gramma loved to cook.” At home, Irma cooks lot of vegetables and she always serves fruit. We ask her about a favorite dish, and she tells us chicken, zucchini, bell peppers with garlic, black pepper, fresh basil and cilantro. She has two children at home that she cooks for.

We ask her what is the toughest part of her job, she thinks carefully and somewhat seriously. “When kids owe money and I need to give them a cheese sandwich [in place of the school meal.] That is the part I don’t like,” she says.

What is the good part? To this question she responds immediately and brightly with a smile, her face once again lit up. “Everything,” she says.

We typically ask school food service in an interview, what if anything, they would like to share with their fellow workers across the country. Irma says, “I’d like them to know we make always fresh fruit and vegetables, and we cook our food. Kids love it when I make chili, chicken, soft tacos. And when I make spaghetti with fresh French bread, or my Mexican food with fresh corn and flour tortillas, our numbers increase.”

Irma’s Chopped Salad

After the interview we walk back into her kitchen with her, where a bright, colorful salad she has prepared is waiting to be served for lunch to between 200 and 250 students. It is made of chopped fruit and vegetables – jicama, cucumber, cilantro and oranges, with a dressing of fresh orange juice. She offers us a taste is a white paper tasting cup. It is delicious, cooling and flavorful. Yes, she says, this is one of the kid’s favorite salads. She is happy they love it, and we love it too.

Favorite Tool: Chef’s Knife — which she keeps very sharp for all the chopping she does.

Part II

Dateline: Getting School Lunch Done the Bay Area Way

Carolyn Lochhead, Washington Correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, explores what School Nutrition Directors are serving around the Bay Area and finds many that not only meet the new USDA regulations for more fruits and vegetables, but welcome them.http://www.sfgate.com/health/article/School-lunch-standards-feed-10-billion-5529696.php

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Terry Campbell has Deep Family Roots in Sonoma County

Terry Campbell, Kitchen Manager, El Verano Elementary School, Sonoma Valley Unified School District

Origin: Presidio, San Francisco, CA

This August, Terry Campbell will have been with the school district for 25 years.  She lives two blocks from El Verano Elementary School, a K-5 school that both of her daughters attended and now all three of her grandchildren are students there too.  This takes roots to a whole new level, which we found quite a bit in talking with school food service staff in Sonoma Valley.

Terry tells us the story of how she came to work in this kitchen and for the district. She used to volunteer at El Verano when her girls were little. The kitchen manager was a friend and they rode horses together. One day, she decided to apply for a substitute position in the kitchen, and the district hired her at the high school, where she worked for eight years prior to moving to El Verano. That’s a route we’ve heard from school food service throughout the nation.

Robot Coupe

Robot Coupe

In her almost 25 years with the district, she’s worked for a lot of school food service directors. She says of Chef Cody Williams, who’s been on the job now since November 2013, “He’s been good on giving us the tools we need.” She cites the Robot Coupe, a commercial food processor pictured left. She loves it, with all the fruit she has to prep, including fresh pineapple. And says her gas oven is also back up and working too, thanks again to Cody.

We asked her what it is like now, versus 1990, in the school kitchen. She immediately said, “The fruit and salad bar.” She says the fruit bar is packed with fresh pears, fruit cups with melon, strawberries, red grapefruit, lemon slices, pineapple chunks, cherries and papayas. Back in the 90s, she said, pizza was homemade. “It wasn’t equal, so we went to premade.”

“We’re unique because each site prepares its own food – we have full kitchens. We even make macaroni and cheese from scratch. In winter, we make turkey dinners once a month. This is a long time tradition. Our spaghetti sauce is homemade, our French bread.” We ask her if she meant that she thaws a frozen loaf and puts it in the oven.

“No, no!” she says, “Flour, yeast, water. We do a lot of cooking and baking.” Perhaps that’s why her day starts, five days a week, at 6 a.m. in the school kitchen. Or, it could be prepping breakfast for 225 students per day, all free and reduced meals.

The aroma alone would call people into the cafeteria, make them feel welcome, and cause their digestive systems to start. In fact, Terry says, they serve a minimum of 360 meals a day, in three shifts. She loves to cook she says, so much so that at the end of the day, she goes home and cooks too.

She personally likes to cook lasagna. She learned to cook from her grandmother.  Her own mother was a single mom and they lived on welfare. As a child, she and her 5 younger siblings weren’t exposed to fresh fruits and vegetables except through her grandmother.  While growing up, Terry lived with her grandmother for a bit in Oklahoma, where her grandmother cooked for ranch hands.

Her grandmother also taught her to ride horses. “She taught me a lot,” Terry says, “including how to make my spaghetti. Everyone loves my spaghetti.”

We ask Terry what she’d like to say to her fellow school food service front line workers across the country. Without hesitating, she says, “This job is rewarding. To know you are helping is rewarding.”

“Everyday I get kids who come up to me and say, ‘Miss Terry, I really love your food.” That makes it worth it. We have a lot of children very hungry – they want to eat, and they enjoy the meal. I like to come to work. Sometimes I ask myself, why I’m still doing this after so long. And I know it’s because of the feeling I get when I see those faces.”

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Chef Cody Williams Takes Charge in Sonoma Valley School District

Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County, California

Sonoma Valley is located north of San Francisco Bay, 45 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. The valley itself, also known as the Valley of the Moon, some 17 miles long, is in southeastern Sonoma County and encompasses a rolling patchwork of vineyards and family farms’ as well as 13,000 acres of preserved and historic parklands. Known as the birthplace of the California wine industry, the valley is home to some of the earliest vineyards and wineries in the state.

Sonoma County has managed to retain its charm and pastoral beauty through elected officials and a population that is intent on its preservation through open space initiatives that have provided funding. Its 250 plus wineries plus pasturage form the backbone of agriculture there today, providing a working landscape that is both productive and beautiful. Sonoma County is ranked as the 32nd county in the United States in agricultural production.

Cody Williams, Food Service Manager, Sonoma Valley Unified School District

Cody Williams

Cody Williams, the young, energetic head of Food Service at Sonoma Valley Unified School District, told us he had had a master plan for his life, and it didn’t involve being a food service director.  Taking that job was a decision he made only recently. “It was a quality of life choice, so I could have more time with my family, and also to give back to my community.” On the job at Sonoma Valley Unified School District since November 2013, he has a list of credentials and a passion for food and children that should put Sonoma Valley school lunch on an equal pairing with its food and wine industry.

Cody knew at a young age he wanted to be a chef. “I knew,” he said, “after one month of working catering jobs as a teenager with Elaine Bell.” (She started Elaine Bell Catering in 1981 and pioneered stellar food events in the wine country.) He went to New York’s Culinary Institute of America for his degree and returned to Sonoma.

At the age of 21, he opened the Julia Child restaurant at Napa’s COPIA with Elaine, who along with another celebrated executive chef, Bruno Tison of Sonoma Mission Inn, are his mentors to this day. He worked for 10 years as a chef in the food and hospitality industry.

On the day we visited with him, he showed us the “world class bread” as he calls it, that they were serving for lunch that day at Sonoma Valley High School. “It’s all about finding the trick of balancing commodity and fresh product.  If you can’t have good bread in the wine country, where can you?”

He has increased purchases of fruits and vegetables from $50-60,000 last year to $200,000 this year.  He has food partners in his program, such as Chef John McReynolds of Stone Edge Farm and Kathleen Thompson Hill, Food and Wine Editor at the Sonoma Index Tribune and author. They are active in the district’s garden in every school program as well, a providing fruit trees and whatever is needed to support the program.

“If we can’t do it here, it can’t happen anywhere,” says Cody, referring to the food and wine rich culture and economy in Sonoma County. He says he’s lucky, now with First Lady Michele Obama, restaurateur Alice Waters and others talking about great food in school lunches. It makes it easier for people to support his and the district’s mission of fresh, good food in school meals.  For example, he is buying strawberries from a farm just 4 miles away from the high school, and making fresh tostadas that include local lettuce and California fresh avocados.

He knows he has to go slow with changes to ensure sustainability. He is working with his local chapter of CAFF, Community Alliance with Family Farmers, to bring in fresh produce. During the week of April 21st, he featured local farmer Paul’s Produce organic red butter lettuce and baby romaine, and sent photos to the staff of the actual lettuces before harvesting.

Red Butter Lettuce for School Lunch

He’s been holding professional development lessons for his staff, beginning with Salad Dressing Day where among other things, he showed his staff how to add Dijon mustard to oil and vinegar, so that “the acid coagulates the protein and the dressing stays thick” he explains. “It’s not mandatory to come to these trainings,” he tells his staff, “but I want to feed you at the end of the day.”

Those are enticing words from a chef who used to work at Cindy Pawlcyn’s Mustard’s Grill, a Napa Valley landmark for over 30 years. He was offered the Executive Chef position at one of Pawlycyn’s other properties, but opted instead to run school food service at Sonoma Valley Unified School District. Cody told us that he was lured to the job by the district’s Deputy Superintendent, Justin Frese, who has a vision for what school food service can be – a vision that coincides with Cody’s.

Meatball Sandwich

Cody himself is a graduate of Sonoma Valley High School, where he proudly served us one of the student choices – a meatball sandwich with thick tomato sauce and shredded mozzarella. Delicious. He’s now serving five times more people a day than he did at Boon Fly Café or Mustard’s Grill on a fifth of that budget. He says that alone was a feat to learn in his first year on the job. He bubbles with excitement, green eyes sparkling, as he talks about what he wants to do at the high school, improving the lunch setting, and serving more and more great food.

He and his staff are serving 1200 breakfasts and 2100 lunches a day in a district with 55-65 % of students qualifying for free and reduced meals.  He started with a Friday “Cook’s Special” which has already “increased his cover by 30” he says. He’s going with a palate campaign, not PR he says. If the food tastes good, the kids will come – and so will the adults. “You have to start small with smart, strategic moves,” he says about not only working with his staff, but in making changes in the menu.

This is a school food service program to watch as, under the leadership of Cody Williams, it becomes a model for serving a school lunch that reflects the bounty of fresh food that the people of Sonoma County and its many visitors enjoy on a daily basis.

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Gail Feenstra on National Farm to Cafeteria Conference

Our friend and colleague, Gail Feenstra, recently attended the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Austin, Texas. Gail is the Deputy Director of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) and the Food and Society Coordinator at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute (ASI), University of California. She was so excited and energized about the conference when she returned that we asked if we could interview her. Happily, she said yes. We hope you enjoy her insights and comments.

Ann and Georgeanne

  1. You are on the board of the National Farm to School organization. What is its purpose and what are the objectives of the national conference? When and where was the conference and what was its official name and theme?

The National Farm to School Network is an information, advocacy and networking hub for communities working to bring local food sourcing and food and agriculture education into school systems and preschools.   Farm to School empowers children and their families to make informed food choices while strengthening the local economy and the local agriculture and contributing to vibrant communities.  The 7th National Farm to Cafeteria Conference: Powering Up, took place in Austin, TX, April 15-18, 2014.  Its theme—Powering Up—was about coming together, over 1,100 strong, to share information, learn from one another, strengthen partnerships and collectively plan for the future.

  1. What was the “feel” of the conference? Were there unusual twists or sessions?

It was an electric event, full of energy and excitement.  The atmosphere was one of wanting to learn and share new ways of being part of the movement.  There were a lot of youth there this time; Food Corps held their annual meeting at the same venue.  It was great to share the youthful energy.  There were also a lot more sessions on social justice and communities of color—engaging a broader spectrum of our colleagues in urban and rural communities.

  1. There were some high powered, national figures who’ve played a significant role in changing food and agriculture in our country over the past 40 years, like Jim Hightower and Alice Waters. How did their message impact or shape the conference?

Jim Hightower provided a wonderful and humorous opening, using his quintessential Texas style and populist experience to talk to us about how to use our voices for food systems change.  Alice Waters ended the conference by contrasting “fast food values” vs. “slow food values,” reminding us of the place that school food has in imparting slow food values to our children.

  1. You’ve heard both speakers in the past, was there anything new in what they had to say, or more resonant today?

I was particularly drawn to Jim Hightower’s call to speak the truth to power.  He encouraged us to go with the BOLDEST agenda and say what we really want; be bold about our vision and wrap our ideas in the values of our culture, economic fairness and justice.  He said to “reach out and speak out.”  He also said that he recognized how hard it is in such a diverse coalition; however, “…to those who say you can’t herd cats, they’ve never tried a can opener.”    He said to persevere.  “The early bird may get the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.”  The NF2SN is ready to launch into new policy work in the next 5 years.  It was so good to hear his encouragement. Alice is always inspirational when it comes to reminding us about our deepest values that include the environment and how we can share the wonder of the earth with our children through food.

  1. What, if anything, made the conference different this year, in other words, were there any significant changes in what was discussed, or the approach, or in who attended, or a sense of progress made – new action items on the agenda?

As I mentioned above, the youth and people of color from African Americans in the South to First Nations people from the upper Midwest and Canada to New Mexico.  A lot of diversity this year.  Yes, there was a sense of progress.  It was great to hear from small school districts in Tulsa, Oklahoma, about the great work they are doing, alongside large cities like Los Angeles and New York City.

  1. What kind of food was served? Did it reflect the southern heritage of Austin, TX? Did you have BBQ? If so, what kind (pork or beef? Tomato or vinegar based?)

The best of southern was at the whole pig roast that the Southern region sponsored for whoever signed up, and we went out to dinner for Texas BBQ one night and tried both pork and beef. It was vinegar based.

  1. Did you meet and interact with people from other regions around the country? What are they serving in their cafeterias? How are they approaching farm to school any differently?

Yes.  A lot of the discussion was on process vs. what exact foods were served.  A lot of fresh, regional produce (collards in the south; fresh peas in Washington, beans in the Southwest).  Approaches are similar.  Partnerships are key everywhere.  Some involve farmers markets.  A lot more talk about involving distributors in sourcing regionally.

  1. You created a session and chaired it. What was it on and did it go as you expected? Any surprises?

Our session was about building new partnerships outside of the typical school environment.  Dani Thomas of the Yolo Arts Council, for example, talked about the importance of the arts in building community connections in the food system.  The biggest surprise for me was how powerful the folks from The Delta Fresh Initiative were in describing how important social justice was and is in building their food system.  I’m now working with our national leaders to see if it might be possible to incorporate some new metrics around social justice into our national evaluation framework.

  1. People are always interested in whether or not there is more money on the horizon for making the changes they are involved in at the grass roots level? Is there?

Yes.  The USDA also held their annual grantee meeting at the conference.  We, on the Board, got to meet them during one of the breakout sessions.  So diverse and creative.  I talked at length with folks in Arizona who are creating school gardens with very little water, in one of the poorest districts in the state.  The folks at the University of Arizona are pretty amazing too.

  1. Reflecting on the conference, are there any changes the board will make for next year? Where and when will it be held?

The Board has really become more organized over the last year.  We now have 4 workgroups.  I’m in the one on Strategic Planning.  The communications for the NF2SN have really improved.  There is a new website and materials, new messaging.  We are building our policy capacity and our policy staff person will be pursuing several paths at the national level as well as building new coalitions.  We have a new development/fundraiser staff person who is doing a great job in outlining a plan for the future in which Board members will be involved.  I’m not sure about the location/date for the next Farm to Cafeteria conference.  No firm plans have been made.

Gail Feenstra, Food systems coordinator

UC Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education Program and

UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute

 Phone: 530-752-8408

Email: gwfeenstra@ucdavis.edu

SAREP website: www.sarep.ucdavis.edu

Mailing address: SAREP, 1 Shields Ave., University of California, Davis, CA 95616

Gail Feenstra is the Deputy Director of the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SAREP) and the Food and Society Coordinator at the Agricultural Sustainability Institute (ASI), University of California.   SAREP/ASI’s Food Systems Program encourages the development of regional food systems that link farmers, consumers and communities.  Feenstra’s research and outreach has focused on farm-to-school and farm-to-institution evaluation in California and nationally, regional food system distribution, and values-based supply chains. She has also worked with communities and national groups to develop food system assessments that use food system indicators to show progress toward the group’s goals.  Feenstra has a doctorate in nutrition education from Teachers College, Columbia University with an emphasis in public health.


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Esparto High School’s Cook – Lavella Kieny

LAVELLA KIENY, COOK, ESPARTO HIGH SCHOOL, Esparto Unified School District, Esparto, CA

Origin: Live Oaks, CA

Things are about to change at Esparto High School, and for Lavella Kieny, who runs the school’s cafeteria. Next school year, 2014-15, the campus is going to be closed. That means students will either eat the school lunch provided by the district or bring their lunch and eat it on campus. Currently only about 50 of the 250 to 300 students who attend the high school eat lunch on campus. In fact, the current lunch room isn’t large enough to hold all of them at one time.

However, that problem will be remedied. Behind the cafeteria, in a large open space, a covered seating structure will be built this year and over the summer, ready to open in time for the 2014-2015 school year and will provide plenty of seating for all the students.

Currently, Lavella not only prepares and serves lunch, but prepares and serves brunch. “A lot of kids ride the valley bus and have to catch it at 6:30 am.” Consequently, a lot of them are really hungry before it’s actually lunch time, so the district provides for brunch items that are available for purchase. The day we visited, Lavella was heating up a selection of pizza, corn dogs, tater tots, and French toast (pictured left), freshly sprinkled with powdered sugar.
For lunch, the students would be served chicken fajitas, fresh fruits and vegetables provided by the large, modern cooking kitchen located at the school district’s middle school (pictured left).

Lavella has been with the district for 10 years, starting out doing yard duty. “Then they had an opening for a cook’s helper, and then I took my food safety training course, the HACCP.”  She’s raised 5 of her own children, and cooked meals for them which included a little bit of everything, like we all do really, but a family favorite is her chile bean casserole.

Who knows? Maybe that chile bean casserole will show up on the new high school menu – chile bean casserole for 250 students, along with salad, fresh fruits and vegetables from the nearby Capay Valley, home to organic market growers of everything from tomatoes to peaches.

This concludes our series on Esparto Unified School District. We’ve had the pleasure of working with them through the Yolo County Farm to School program, offering professional development cooking lessons to Lavella and the rest of the staff, under the direction of Stacie Velaquez, Director, Food Services. There’s one more year, and three classes to go on that grant, provided by the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Grant Program – and we’ve been featuring much of what California grows in recipes that will  soon be available on line for all to download, at family size and scaled up in Nutrikids format for 50 and 100. They will be available at Yolo Farm to School’s website, Harvest Hub Yolo. http://www.harvesthubyolo.org/farm-to-school.

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Esparto’s Natalie Zentner grew up on a cattle ranch

NATALIE 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.”

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

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