October 20, 2011

Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools

Nutrition Education Cards

"The nearly 900 million meals served yearly in California schools today present 900 million opportunities to create positive systemic change. After all, what better way is there to build healthy lifelong eating habits, support student well-being, and promote our economy and environment than by offering delicious, appealing meals that celebrate our agricultural abundance and rich cultures?"
Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools

Last week, communities across our country used National School Lunch Week (the week beginning the 2nd Sunday in October) to raise awareness about the importance of school meals in children’s health and our food system. As part of this, we were able to visit with award-winning cookbook authors, Georgeanne Brennan and Ann M. Evans, who have co-written a new cookbook and menu planning guide for schools and families, in partnership with The Center for Ecoliteracy and TomKat Charitable Trust, Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools.  

Here's our conversation with Ann and Georgeanne about school lunch programs, how parents can learn more about their schools' programs and how we can incorporate more locally grown foods into school lunches.

What is your vision when it comes to school lunches in California?
ANN - I’d like to see lunch as part of the school day – with a focus on flavor and agricultural literacy as well as nutrition. I’d like to have CA School Lunch be a part of a statewide green economic development program that raises up the standards for those working in the kitchen and of those in the fields and processing plants. Ideally, teachers and students would eat together, just as they are together in the classroom for other kinds of learning, at least at the elementary level.
GEORGEANNEI’d love to see students having more than a few minutes and sit down and enjoy a home-style, cooked-from-scratch meal, served on real china with real utensils, with pitchers of water on the table. 

Busy parents often wonder what they should know about their children’s school lunch programs. What are some of the first steps a parent can take in finding out more about their program? What questions should they be asking?
ANN - I suggest they go to their school district’s website and look up the student nutrition services program and become acquainted with the menu and the philosophy; next, eat school lunch with your child – letting the school know in advance in case there are protocols to be followed; thirdly – seeing if the district has a Wellness Committee or Nutrition Committee – and signing up to help with it. An email to the food service director, letting them know you are interested in helping and whom should you contact (once all the above is done) would be nice as well. 
GEORGEANNE - They can go to the district website, see the menus that are posted there. They can eat at any school – usually prior request is needed from the principal or food service director – and see for themselves what is being served. 

Is there a common step we can take as parents, or as a community, to help the school lunch programs to incorporate more local foods into their meal plans?
ANN - Get involved and become knowledgeable about the constraints the food service operates within, which are considerable. Understand what food service has made in terms of changes and has in terms of plans for future changes. Work with a group to create support for the food service director making changes – sometimes this means getting the board of education to say they are supportive of changes.
GEORGEANNEFind out what is being served, meet the school food service director and ask how you or your community group might help. Find out what he or she needs, but do not be adversarial. In my experience, all the hard-working food service staff wants to do is provide good, tasty meals, but they are frequently hamstrung by regulations and financing. Try to help, not criticize. 

Your book Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools is more than a cookbook - it's also a tested guide for food service professionals.  It's quite a resource and it's free for anyone to download online.  What are your hopes for this book?
ANN - My hope for the book we authored, and that Center for Ecoliteracy produced, is that it be as widely used as possible to inspire change in school lunches.  
GEORGEANNE - I hope that it will encourage families as well as school districts to cook seasonally, and to discover how good food can be when using fresh, in-season ingredients. 

Outside of a school lunch program, how can the average family use this book?

ANN - The recipes are family size, so families might want to cook together from the book.
GEORGEANNEThe recipes are family size, so they are easily done at home. By using six different dishes – wraps, pastas, pizzas, soups, salads, and rice bowls – multiple dishes can be created, depending upon season and the different flavor profiles, so once the concept is mastered, people won’t need recipes – they’ll internalize the matrix. 

Asian Noodles with Lime Chili Sauce and Spring Vegetables: page 111

You chose 5 ethnic flavor profiles (African, Asian, European/Mediterranean, Latin American, and Middle Eastern/Indian) for your book. Why?

ANNCalifornia was built through the ingenuity and labor of many peoples from around the world. When they came here they brought their cuisine – I wanted to both educate and celebrate that fact, and ensure that students were exposed to a variety of foods – as a part of a lunch education.

GEORGEANNE - Because they seem to broadly reflect the world’s culture, and by extension, the melting pot culture not only of California, but the United States. 

How have school lunch programs in California changed in the last 3 years? Where do you think we can be 3-5 years from now?
ANN - There is much more awareness now, and I do think that in some cases, fresh fruits and vegetables have moved from the salad bar into other parts of the menu. Some districts are purchasing directly from farmers, or getting their produce vendor to tell them where the food is coming from. State and national professional conferences now focus on incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables on the school lunch plate.
GEORGEANNEMany school district food service directors are moving forward at a rapid pace to change the lunch - from the huge LA District, to the small Winters one. 

What can parents do at home to help make the connection between farms and food?
ANN - Join a CSA, eat seasonally, shop at a farmers market as a family and talk about what is offered and why.
GEORGEANNEGrow a garden at home with their children.

Black Eyed Peas and Chard: page 90

What’s your favorite recipe in the book?
ANN - I love the Black-eyed Peas with Chard as a nod to my southern heritage, and the Curried Potatoes in Chapatti just satisfies a special craving if I’m really hungry, and the Chicken Yassa is a favorite too. Hard to know where to stop, I love them all really.
GEORGEANNE - Curried Potato Wrap.

Do you have a favorite website or tools you recommend that would help spread the word about healthier eating habits?
ANN - Cooking is the best thing I know to help people fall in love with fresh, seasonal food – healthy eating follows from that.
GEORGEANNETaste, taste, cook and cook. If it tastes good, and children help cook it, they will eat it. Eat real food, just less of it. Whole milk, real cheese, lots of vegetables and fruits – so many adults, upon eating a broccoli topped pizza have said, “I hate broccoli, but I like this” – that’s because they’ve usually had frozen, steam table broccoli and who would like that?

Thank you Ann and Georgeanne for sharing your school lunch and healthy eating insights as well as your cookbook with us!   

Georgeanne Brennan is an award-winning cookbook author, journalist, and food policy consultant with a distinguished culinary and business career spanning several decades. As a principal of Evans & Brennan, LLC , she has been working over the past several years piloting professional development with the Davis JUSD, focusing specifically on enhancing the skills and creativity of the nutrition services staff using the 6-5-4 School Lunch Matrix. The author of more than 30 books on cooking and food, and a cooking school owner and teacher, she brings her considerable expertise to Rethinking School Lunch in rural and urban settings.

Ann M. Evans has a long history of involvement in sustainable food systems, community leadership, educational reform, and the marketplace. She has worked for a decade with Davis Joint Unified School District, bringing her expertise as former mayor of Davis and Special Advisor to the Superintendent of Public Instruction on school gardens and food, to transforming school food. Cofounder of the Davis Food Co-op and the Davis Farmers’ Market, she has a 30-year career with California state government. As a principal of Evans & Brennan, she is working with rural and urban communities to improve children’s health through Rethinking School Lunch.