School lunch menus freshened up

School lunch menus freshened up

Michele Ellson

Chicken salad sandwiches are one of the many new items offered for lunch at Alameda's schools. Photos by Michele Ellson.

Denise Langowski is excited to be a participant in the school lunch revolution. On Monday, she dished out 100 orders of chili cheese fries for students at Will C. Wood Middle School, and during a visit to the district’s central kitchen at Wood on Tuesday she proudly displayed cartons packed with beef teriyaki, perfectly browned baked chicken and a neat tray of lovingly crafted and quartered chicken salad sandwiches.

“Alice makes beautiful sandwiches,” said Langowski, who is Alameda Unified’s central cooking kitchen manager.

The district rolled out new school menus this year that feature a broader range of meal choices, created using more fruit, vegetables and whole grains. District leaders are billing the changes as a first salvo in a multi-year effort to provide students better food – and to make changes that will encourage them to eat it.

Food service staffers are getting cooking classes where they’re learning how to make the new meals and fresh kitchen tools to make them with, and plans are afoot to begin serving food fresh at Alameda’s schools instead of shipping packaged meals – and ultimately, to give students nicer spaces and more time to eat in.

"We are going to make changes as fast or as slow as the system will allow," the district’s new director of food and nutrition services, Rafaelita Curva, told the Board of Education on Tuesday night.

During an interview, Superintendent Kirsten Vital was quick to stress that the district is only in the beginning stages of its effort to improve students’ dining experience, but front-line workers like Langowski are already seeing a huge change. She said she’s serving more than 200 lunches a day at Wood alone, and that she’s seeing an increasing number of paying customers for the meals.

“I am making money every day,” Langowski said.

School administrators and parents are also cheering the changes.

“Way better choices! Son is happy and I am happy I don't have to pack a lunch for him everyday,” Tomi Watanabe said of the new meals on The Alamedan’s Facebook page when a reporter asked for parents’ opinions.

Vital said she and other district leaders began considering changes to school meals five years ago, when a group of Franklin Elementary school students invited her to try the food herself. She said the district tried to improve individual food items as leaders considered broader changes, but other priorities took center stage.

Last year district leaders again engaged students, dining at Otis and Ruby Bridges elementary schools and surveying kids to find out what they want to eat.

“We needed to significantly improve the food for kids to want to eat it,” Vital said.

Providing attractive meal options is critical for students who receive the meals free or at a reduced price, she said, because they need to eat to perform well in school and the meals they get there may be the only ones they eat all day. But the district also wants to provide healthy meals that students will buy; the money is put back into the district’s food service program.

Enter Curva, who joined Alameda Unified in July after more than a decade of work making school meals healthier in two school districts. Curva, whose leadership of the Davis schools’ food service was spotlighted by chef Jamie Oliver as part of his effort to improve school food, started her tenure here by revamping menus so they included items that students who took the surveys said they wanted to eat.

“Menus should be customer driven, and they’re our primary customers. I simply put what they requested in the new menu,” she said.

Curva added whole grains and produce – along with menu items that are more reflective of the diversity of the students the schools serve. The green French fries that once accompanied meals were out, replaced by turkey empanadas and chicken fried rice.

Perennial favorites like pizza and hamburgers are still on the menu, but they’re provided in a healthier – or tastier – form. Pizzas being constructed in the Wood School kitchen Tuesday were loaded with vegetables, and Curva said that once bland foods like burgers are now gaining the benefit of proper seasoning and garnish.

Curva brought in chefs she worked with in Davis to help train Alameda’s cooks to prepare the new foods. “They can say to themselves, ‘Yes, I can do this. I can make these beautiful salads,’” she said.

She’s also planning to pilot an effort to serve food fresh at school out of hot and cold steam tables; right now, most 2,000 meals the Wood kitchen pushes out every day are packaged, delivered and reheated in schools’ aged ovens.

“It will be hot, if it is a hot meal, and served at the right temperature if it is a cold meal,” she said. Students will be able to see and smell the food, she said, “because it’s not packaged.”

Curva’s looking for ways to incorporate food produced by school gardens into students’ lunches: Eggplant, tomatoes and basil harvested from Edison Elementary’s garden were recently whipped up into a pasta dish that was popular enough to find itself on next month’s menu, she said.

Another possible effort: A Farm to School program that links the district with local farmers, which Curva piloted while working in Davis. “The intention is to help support local farmers. (It’s) also to improve the nutrition of the food,” she said.

Ultimately, she said, she’d like to replace the central kitchen at Wood with something bigger and better able to handle the number of meals workers are expected to churn out each day. And she said she’d like to improve the sometimes loud and cramped cafeterias many of the district’s students are eating in. But that will cost money – something the district lacks.

“We don’t have much money to spare, so we will do it slow, but we will make sure the nutritional quality of the meals as well as the freshness will be of top quality,” she said. Vital said better kitchen and dining facilities could be included in anticipated schools bonds.

While the changes may be in their preliminary stages, the excitement over them is palpable. Curva’s presentation Tuesday earned her praise from school board members and also, applause from the audience – a rare accolade. At Wood, they have a fan in Langowski.

The school is beginning to serve more food fresh from the kitchen, scooped hot out of the pot. And that has been popular with students, Langowski said.

“What I like to hear is that the kids are really happy, and they’re full,” she said. “And they’re well fed.”