“RC” Curva Sets Fresh Vision, Makeover, for CA’s Alameda USD School Lunch

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Happy National School Lunch Week to all. This week we begin a feature on Alameda Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Alameda, California

Rafaelita “RC” Curva, pictured left, is Alameda Unified School District’s new director of Food and Nutrition Services. Where in California is the City of Alameda? Known to locals as simply ‘the island’, Alameda borders the west side of the city of Oakland and juts into the east edge of San Francisco Bay across from San Francisco itself. Walking or driving the streets of this quiet, sunny little piece of the San Francisco Bay Area almost feels like stepping back in time. Streets are lined with Victorian houses, the downtown is full of small, family owned eateries, and very quickly, in any direction, you find yourself with a view of the Bay.

The city, actually built on two islands, Alameda Island and Bay Farm Island, has a rich history that begins with the native Ohlone Indians, encompasses a long era in the late 19thand early 20th century as a resort location for San Franciscans and other nearby inhabitants – Neptune Park was as famous in its era as Coney Island – and included, until it closed in 1997, one of the most important naval air stations on the West Coast.  The naval station drew workers from all over the country which accounts in part for Alameda’s diverse population that includes Latinos, African-Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Asians.  Today, it is somewhat cut-off from the world. Highway 880 bypasses it, with access only across one of its 3 bridges and one tube, or by ferry from Oakland or San Francisco, which no doubt helps to account for the peaceful, friendly atmosphere of the island.

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Rafaelita Curva, Director, Food and Nutrition Services, Alameda Unified School District, Alameda, CA.

Friends and colleagues alike call her “RC.” One of the Jamie Oliver’s original 12 School Lunch Heroines, RC was hired by Alameda USD to makeover the school menus with flavorful, appealing, and healthy fresh food. She had done that at two previous school districts, first in San Francisco and more recently in Davis, CA. (RC is featured in our first blog post, May 23, 2012, when she was with Davis.) She is already receiving compliments after several months in Alameda; the proof also lies in an uptick in the number of meals served, according to her district.

Blog.Alameda.knife_-300x156One of the first things RC did was buy new small equipment for the kitchen staff, with a priority going to knives (literally, pictured left is one of the new knives). If you are going to cook, you need a knife. Fresh fruit and vegetables need chopping, and flavor is enhanced with in-season produce.

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But it’s not all about new equipment and money. RC went through her storage areas and found supplies that had never been used that would meet her desire for more colorful presentations, such as this checkered sandwich wrap (pictured left). In order to make sure there was strong policy support for the healthy, fresh changes she wanted to make, RC developed a written shared vision for the changes with the Superintendent and Chief Business Officer. Then, she called for a 3-day retreat with her staff. Over a ten year period at Davis Joint Unified School District, RC with her staff, had developed scratch cooking and a fresh food philosophy, so she knew the importance of having staff working with you, not against you as a precursor to making major changes.

Blog.Alameda.Eggsandwich-224x300RC invited her staff to be a part of the change — with one school producing egg salad sandwiches (pictured left), from scratch, with a deli dill pickle. Junior high kids at the site loved the new sandwich – and so did we. It was tasty and had the feeling of homemade, which was not surprising it turned out because the recipe came from one of her staff, something she makes at home for her kids. We think blurring the line between home and school lunch can be part of the solution. ”If you want to change the lunch box, you have to start with the individuals implementing the change. This is done through professional development,” says RC. These sandwiches reflect RC’s intent. ” I want students to be able to smell and see the food,  and not only be eating food that comes wrapped in plastic.”

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“The first thing I did with my managers was identify our core values. We put them all on a board and selected them together.” The values include trust, dependability, communication, being positive, and commitment. On the second day they did team exercises about communication and coordination. On the third day, she brought in a professional motivation speaker to address issues of change, both in the meals and in attitudes. And finally, she promised them three seasonal cooking classes (the first of which is pictured left.)

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By way of full disclosure, RC hired us, Evans & Brennan, LLC to teach the professional development cooking courses. For the first round, we conducted an extra virgin olive oil tasting and the staff  cooked a fall menu with about 8 recipes, including a Spicy Orange Chicken Rice Bowl dish (pictured left) that we developed using fresh oranges and clean, simple ingredients. This is an example of the kind of recipes RC likes —  the dish incorporates ethnic diversity, uses farm-fresh produce, and high flavor.

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