Esparto is a small rural community at the mouth of the Capay Valley in Yolo County, west of highway 505. The community hosts an annual almond festival in honor of the blossoms, and now has an Almond Trail as well. Many of the parents of the school district’s students work on the organic farms in the valley. Many of those farms are also familiar household words for many years to fine diners in the San Francisco Bay Area: Riverdog Farm, Full Belly Farm, Capay Organics, and Seka Hills, to name a few. The area is also now rich in olive oil and vineyards in addition to the orchards, citrus groves and field crops.
STACIE VASQUEZ, Food Service Director, Esparto Unified School District, Esparto, CA
Stacie took over the director’s position in late fall of 2013 and she is working hard to bring the valley’s produce into her school kitchens and onto the student’s plates, as well as serving up the kind of food she knows the students like. The salad bars have sliced jicama with fresh lime and chili powder, for example, and she makes her Mexican rice from scratch, the way she does for her family at home, incorporating minced white onions into the dish.
At only 23 years old, Stacie is nevertheless a veteran of the food service business, where she’s been working since she was 15 ½. Her first job was at the venerable Bill & Kathy’s Restaurant in Dunnigan, a valley icon along Highway 5, now sadly closed. “I worked there, and then when Denny’s opened in town, I got a job there.” Working first as a hostess, then as a server, Stacie, at that point only 16, heard about an opening for an assistant manager at Denny’s, and thought to herself, why not? I can do that.
And she did, continuing as assistant manager until taking a job as Kitchen Manager in Winters Unified School District, like Esparto also in Yolo County, under Director of Nutrition Services, Cathleen Olson, herself a former chef, caterer, and restaurateur in Davis. “I learned a lot there,” Stacie said, “working in a school lunch program that was gradually shifting to increasing fresh and local foods, buying first from a local distributor and then direct from local farms,” which is her goal now at Esparto.
“In Winters, I worked hands on, chopping, washing, everything, plus training staff. I found out that when you chop an onion correctly, you can save 3 to 5 minutes, for example, and every minute adds up. That helps to give you that extra time you need to prep fresh foods and to cook from scratch. I know firsthand there is time to increase the amount of scratch cooking we do at Esparto.”
Stacie, pictured left in orange with some of her staff in her beautiful central kitchen, looked long and hard at the job opening for Director, Food Services at Esparto Unified School District before applying. “The position was still open after 4 months. A friend at work said, ‘Go for it. You’re competitive and want to move up. It’s an opportunity. Do it.’ I talked it over with my husband, and on the last day of the posting, I applied.” And she got the job.
We asked her about the school lunch menu. “It was written and submitted before I was hired. But next year, I’ll get to write my own.” You could tell she could hardly wait to begin the formal revamping, shaping it to her vision of more local food, more fresh food, and more scratch cooking. “Right now, we can be creative with the daily specials, and those are going really well. Dishes like Mandarin Chicken, and on Fridays, we do a potato bar. We are getting a lot of the teachers and administrators as well as school office staff eating here too, which is good role modeling for the students and great for my bottom line. And all the schools have salad bars. And we do Harvest of the Month, featuring a different fruit and vegetable each month.”
We’ve had the pleasure the last 2 years of working with Stacie and her staff, providing professional development cooking lessons that feature CA Specialty Crops, through a grant received by Yolo County Agricultural Commissioner John Young’s office, from CA Department of Food and Agriculture.