Healthy Standards Rolled Back, DP Cafeteria Chugs Forward

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Healthy Standards Rolled Back, DP Cafeteria Chugs Forward

Dos Pueblos cafeteria worker Luis Roberto Salguero dishes up June  1's entrees as seniors Alejandra Mendoza and Elaina Hersey make their selection.

Dos Pueblos cafeteria worker Luis Roberto Salguero dishes up June 1's entrees as seniors Alejandra Mendoza and Elaina Hersey make their selection.

Dos Pueblos cafeteria worker Luis Roberto Salguero dishes up June 1's entrees as seniors Alejandra Mendoza and Elaina Hersey make their selection.

Dos Pueblos cafeteria worker Luis Roberto Salguero dishes up June 1's entrees as seniors Alejandra Mendoza and Elaina Hersey make their selection.

By Jean-Michel Ricard, News Editor

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For many, the prospect of healthy, balanced school lunches is a prospect of horror as images of gooey, flavorless, and untouchable “whole foods” and veggies are brought to mind. Among these individuals, evidently, was Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who on May 1st, 2017, rolled back the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010, hailing a return to cafeteria “flexibility” and tasty lunches.

In our very own district however, according to Food Services Director Nancy Weiss, it is these new cutbacks to sodium, milk, and whole grain requirements that will go untouched. Instead, in a district where Weiss says healthy lunches have worked to the benefit of students, staff, and budget, the nutritional program will only expand.

“Frankly I don’t mean to be in any way disrespectful, but I really don’t care about any of what they’re taking away, what they’re giving us, what they seem to be giving us in terms of leeway and flexibility” said Weiss, dismissing the rollback. “If you stick to a whole foods menu, you’ve got nothing to worry about.”

For Weiss, the fight to reform Santa Barbara Unified School District’s food program started well before the Act even existed, when she was a Cafeteria Manager at Goleta Valley Junior High prior to her 2008 promotion.

“[I] knew firsthand the quality and the variety, or the lack of variety, that we had during those years that I was in the kitchen under the leadership of different food service directors who were more interested in capturing the trend at the time,” Weiss said.

At the time, that trend consisted of a lean labor force and costly prepackaged deliveries from Taco Bell and McDonald’s.

When Weiss assumed leadership over the Food Services, she reversed this formula. Instead of paying for prepackaged fast food to save on labor costs, SB Unified cut fast food loose and invested more heavily in a healthier, largely locally-based menu prepared by the employees themselves. Perhaps counterintuitively, this scheme actually proved to be less costly, moving the district’s Food Services from the red to the black.

Instrumental in these changes, of course, were the cafeteria employees, who now had to be able to cook from scratch. Originally hired as either “Ones” or “Twos”—with the former working only part time, unskilled jobs—all staff were required to undergo a paid week of “Culinary Boot Camp” hosted by the Orfalea Foundation.

Though some were originally hesitant about the idea, Dos Pueblos High School Cafeteria Manager Nina De Anda said its participants quickly took to it.

“I’ve worked in kitchens all my life” said De Anda, “but it was beneficial because there’s things that you do in kitchens that you think are right and then when you’re trained culinary-wise, it’s totally different.”

The eight hour days at camp were split between traditional classroom education and guided practice in the kitchen, with group activities and games factored in. The courses, held right across from a local farm, taught the future cooks everything from sauce-making to “Magic Math” (for unit conversions), with a heavy focus on kitchen safety and cooking with fresh natural ingredients.

Though the boot camp is no longer offered and new hires are held to a higher standard, those who did benefit from it saw a definite change in the way they worked.

“At first I was kind of like ‘Ooo, I don’t know if I’ll be able to do this’, but here I actually help make the breads that we use for our tortas and our sub sandwiches and I help with doing the pizza dough, the crust, making it from scratch, so that part for me I think that’s fun,” said DP Food Service Assistant Diana Garnica. “So I got used to it, I kind of like it better this way. I think it’s better.”

“It was such a fun week,” said DP cafeteria Cook and Baker Graciela Perez, summing up the experience. “You apply all the knowledge that they give us. I mean, it’s awesome.”

However, the transition nonetheless came with its fair share of friction. Faced with a sudden and unexpected onslaught of “Ayurvedic” Tandoori dishes and pita pockets, students chafed against Weiss’s initial reforms.

“I actually believe we lost money because kids really didn’t want or appreciate the dramatic change in menu,” said Weiss, speaking of her first year. “I think I was a little overzealous and I overcorrected”.

Backing up a step, the Food Services refocused on more familiar foods, developing whole grain pizzas, pastas, and deli subs that met both Weiss’s and the student’s standards.

“I remember one day one of these kids didn’t want to get the spicy chicken,” said Perez, speaking of the horror of the Tandoori days. “And I’m like ‘Awww, that’s too sad. I cook with love, I prep everything myself with these hands; you don’t want it. So give it a try, come on. Give it a try.’ They try it, they like it, they come back. So now these kids they know [it] is a good food.”

Between compromise and cajoling, student participation quickly recovered.

“On a scale of ten it might be a seven,” said junior and DP Good Food Club President Gabby Diaz, evaluating the current meals. “they’re not as nutritious as they could be and they’re not as pleasing to the eye as they could be, but they are delicious and they are moderately healthy.”

However, breaking from her culinary analysis, Diaz said the main strength of the cafeteria lay elsewhere.

“What they do best is keeping a smile on while they’re serving food because it must be difficult serving hundreds of students and they don’t look stressed even if they may be,” Diaz said. Despite being unaware of the complement, De Anda couldn’t have agreed more.

“I can honestly say that I feel that my kitchen is very happy to come to work,” said De Anda. “We don’t like each other every day, but we love each other all the time, do you know what I mean?”

Now entering her sixth year of service, De Anda and her staff may have soon have the chance to develop their cooking even further as Weiss plans workshops on making tofu that “actually tastes good” and develops more plant-based entrees for the upcoming years, now all carefully test run ahead of time at Earth Day.


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