SHANNON PEREZ, FOOD SERVICE 2, TURLOCK UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT, TURLOCK, CA
Origin: Santa Cruz, CA
With a culinary background that includes seven years of catering in San Francisco and Monterey and a personal passion for cooking, food, and education, Shannon is a key asset for the Turlock school nutrition team headed by Child Nutrition Director Scott Soiseth. Shannon is pictured left with one of her many ways of making the job fun — using the district’s brand of Real.Fresh. She’s the princess of course.
She didn’t set out to work in school lunch. Three years ago when her husband lost his job, Shannon, who had been a stay-at-home mom, saw a posting for a job in school nutrition. Although she had no formal background in school nutrition, “I did well on the tests and could do the conversions, and then went through the interview. I guess I was what Scott was looking for,“ she laughs. It seems to us they love to laugh in that office, and their smiles are contagious.
“I help in the menu planning, in new recipe development and education. We have a traveling farmers market that goes to the schools, and I also work with Head Start.” She showed us some of the educational posters she had created. Especially outstanding was one on oranges that showed all the botanical parts of the orange (pictured left). This is part of the Harvest of the Month program as well, so oranges are featured in children’s literature (in this case paired with the book An Orange in January.) The students eat oranges that are purchased through AgLink.
They are prepped and packed on site, and labeled with a Real.Fresh imprinted, clear wrapper. “I love what I do! This is a really fun environment. It’s like working in a think tank. Some ideas work, others don’t,” says Shannon.
Part of what she does is to look at food products, seeking the ones with the cleanest labels, and then seeing what the staff can do with them that kids will eat and appreciate. “We’ve got great chicken and noodles that the kids like, but they didn’t like the lasagna or the ravioli. They just didn’t.” The answer? Shannon helped develop a Chicken Parmesan dish and a Chili Mac dish that the kids did like. “Things that kids are eating now are different. They aren’t getting casserole at home. We need to change with it, but we also need to educate the students about food.”
When Shannon goes to restaurants, she figures out what is in the different dishes and dissects them, then creates a recipe. Also as part of her job she attends natural food shows to see new products. “We need to work on some of those non-meat items. We are looking for high end ingredients. For example, chile. The low-end types will have a lot of filler, like soy. ”
We ask Shannon if she does a lot of cooking at home. ”Oh yes. My five-year-old has been cooking with me since he was three. I set it up that way. I grew up in foster care, in a lot of different homes, and it was important to me to give my children what I didn’t have.” She goes on to talk about her homemade chocolate cakes and her frostings, made from scratch. “I use real butter, real eggs, real vanilla. You can taste the difference.” And we can see her enthusiasm as she talks about cooking, including catering. “We do a lot of catering here, board meetings, city hall meetings – it helps market school lunch.” The district even caters the Mayor’s pray breakfast annually, and, as Director Scott Soiseth told us, the revenue generated helps with his branding program and cafeteria refurbishment.
As we leave, Shannon tells us, “This is where I’m supposed to be.”
Favorite tool: Pineapple corer –“The pineapple comes out in ringlets – it works in catering for us.”