The Port City: West Sacramento and Energetic Karri Pina, District Food Service Director

West Sacramento, CA, Washington Unified School District.

West Sacramento sits directly across the Sacramento River from Sacramento, California’s capitol city, but it is its own entity, incorporated in 1987. The Port of West Sacramento, built in 1963, is one of the eleven ports in California and was meant to serve the agricultural industry of Northern California.  The Port ships primarily bulk agricultural products, mostly rice, and receives bulk cement and special projects.  The 43-mile long Deep Water Channel connects the Port to Suisun Bay, and from there to San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean so West Sacramento, an inland port, accesses the Pacific Rim.

West Sacramento, connected to Sacramento by several bridges, is essentially a working class town and its employment has been dominated by warehousing, shipping, and farming.  During the 1980s it became a center for Russian émigrés and today the city has a population that is over 7% Russian ethnicity and over 2 % Ukrainian. It has a large population of Hmong and Mien people as well, some of whom are very active with the school district’s garden based learning program. The River Cats, minor league baseball team, plays in a new stadium overlooking the river, and is the Triple-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics.

Today the city is reinventing itself, with an increase in food and product driven industries, upscale markets, burgeoning new restaurants, and attractive urban housing alongside the taquerias, Russian bakeries, and agricultural supply stores.  The city is home to one of our sponsors, Capay Organic and Farm Fresh to You and they are very involved with selling to and supporting the West Sacramento school district, called Washington Unified School District. Karri Pina, the Food Service Director for West Sacramento’s Washington Unified School District, grew up here.

Karri Pina, Food Service Director, Washington Unified School District, West Sacramento, CA

Diminutive and energetic, Karri  worked her way up into her current position, starting as a substitute while she was still in high school, as well as working as hostess and later a server at Bakers Square, a local restaurant. In September, 1996, following her high school graduation, she was hired by the school distinct as a typist-clerk and cashier in the kitchen. Less than 10 years later, in 2007, she was hired as the Food Service Director. “I’ve learned a lot by hands-on,” says the mother of four, who self-confessedly ‘runs a tight ship’ juggling work and children’s schedules, and completing an AA degree in Business from Sacramento City College while working. “I’m not from a family who went to college. I had to figure it out myself.”

And she certainly has. In addition to supervising 76 employees and serving 7,000 meals a day, she is working, at the school district’s request, to help develop a culinary curriculum for the district.  “We want to be working with our ‘ag’ program from ground to table.” Last year, she brought some students from the alternative education high school to work in the River City High School kitchen (a beautiful high school kitchen pictured left), a project she is passionate about.  “Working with alternative education students gives them some experience. It vests some of these borderline kids and it gives them a reason to go to school. This district has a great team with the Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent.”

When we asked about her staff, she had nothing but praise for them. “We like to figure out what works for each school population and give staff the ability to deliver it. I see each person’s individual assets.” Pictured left is Vera Yermakova, Cafeteria Assistant, River City High School, cooking Asian Stir Fry at the wok station. With 13 schools in the district, all with fully functioning cooking kitchens, Karri and her staff are capable of doing much that other districts, with limited, out-dated, or non-functioning facilities can’t. In the next couple of weeks, we’ll be featuring two of her staff and their kitchens, exploring in depth what and how things are cooked and served, but we can tell you now, it is delicious.

When we asked Karri if she could summarize her philosophy, she said, “Stick with what we know. Do the best for our students. They are the ones we are here to help. We are a support system for the classroom, whether we get credit or not. That’s my philosophy.”

From our observation, Karri is all about empowering her employees to deliver fresh, flavorful and healthy food in school meals, with as much cooking as possible.

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