18 MONTEREY COUNTY WEEKLY january 18-24, 2024 www.montereycountyweekly.com places chefs in school districts and helps them improve the quality of food served. School districts have only so much flexibility: They need to follow strict USDA guidelines including the number of calories per meal (550 to 650 for grades K-9, or 750 to 850 for grades 9-12); percentage of fat (less than 10 percent); and sodium level, from 1,110 to 1,280 milligrams, depending on the age group. At least 80 percent of the grains offered on a weekly basis must be 50- to 100-percent whole grain, two choices of milk must be offered that are low-fat or fat-free, and fruit and vegetables are required every day. These guidelines started during the 2012-2013 school year and were based on the guidelines from Food and Nutrition Board of the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science, an organization that studies the U.S. food supply domestically and internationally and creates nutrition guidelines to improve health and provide recommendations to policymakers. At that time, about 17 percent of kids nationwide were obese. Each school district produces its own recipes and has access to other recipes from nonprofit partners such as Brigaid, or through the U.S. Department of Education or USDA. For example, if a school district wants to introduce cauliflower fried rice, kitchen staff have two options: develop their own concept from scratch, or look for existing options on the school recipe databases. Of course, they may pick one then adapt it to their students’ preference. When a district creates a new recipe—chicken pozole, for example—they use menu planning software such as Mosaic or Health-e Pro, which acts like a food calculator. So many ounces each of chicken, hominy, sauces and spices generates the number of calories, sodium, fat, etc. per portion. Cooks then tweak it to make sure they are complying with USDA and state nutrition requirements. While the cafeteria comes to life in a sudden burst of energy, a lot of work happens behind the scenes that students don’t see. It’s a continuous cycle that starts with buying ingredients, planning menus, estimating how many meals to prepare (accounting for absences, field trips and more), cooking and prepping the food, delivering it, cleaning and starting all over again. Many school districts use cycle menus, enabling them to buy items in bulk and plan ahead. For example, every Friday at North Monterey High School, you can find a cheese omelet with tots for breakfast. There’s also orange chicken with fried rice twice a month. Sometimes, the mastermind behind the menus can make little adjustments to indulge students and make something special for a holiday celebration. On Dec. 14, MPUSD schools served chicken Alfredo. “We’re doing chicken Alfredo with broccoli and then as a treat, we’re serving a chocolate chip cranberry homemade cookie,” James said. Of course, that holiday indulgence had to be entered into Health-e Pro, and the math has to add up. James says to offer this treat, she adjusted the rest of the week to account for the Alfredo sauce, which is higher in fat than other meal options. Every day, workers prepare breakfast, lunch and supper for students. Some options are prepacked, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or only need to be reheated. Other dishes are prepared from scratch, such as salads and dressings. Or it could be a combination of both, called fast-scratch cooking, which uses convenient, ready-made ingredients like canned hominy for pozole or premade teriyaki sauce. “We’re moving towards scratch cooking,” says Christina Varela, SCESD’s director of foodservice. Varela adds the school district offers six freshly made meals in a two-week period, incorporating some from-scratch items with things like premade sauces. At NMCUSD, about 65 percent of entrees are scratch-cooked. Each district, and each campus, works within its facility constraints. At Carmel Unified, for example, there is a lot of assembly (of things like wraps, burritos and sandwiches) more than cooking. “With the facilities and the staff that we have, we can’t fully scratch cook,” Supancic said. It’s not just from-scratch cooking that is gaining traction, but local ingredients and healthier options. In 2021, NMCUSD received a $97,638 grant for its farm-to-school expansion project to increase locally grown produce in school cafeterias, plus hands-on opporNo Free Lunch School lunch is free to students. Districts get reimbursed from the state and federal government. While universally free meals for students in California is a relatively new reality, the concept of low-cost meals goes back to 1946, when President Harry Truman signed the National School Lunch Program into law. Then, 7.1 million children participated; now, over 30 million nationwide eat school meals. The U.S. Department of Agriculture donates a variety of food items to schools, and also reimburses them: This year, the federal reimbursement for breakfast is $2.28-$2.75/meal, and for lunch it’s $4.25-$4.35. (Districts with a higher proportion of students who qualify for free or reduced-price meals based on household income are reimbursed at a higher rate.) The California State Legislature allocates funds to reimburse school districts for the cost of the state’s universal meal program, about $650 million annually. Last year, NMCUSD’s food expenditures were $4.4 million; the district received $4 million in federal reimbursement. SCESD’s foodservice budget this year is $8.6 million; last year it received $5.1 million from the federal government, and $2 million from the state. “School food service is the biggest restaurant chain in America. It’s bigger than McDonald’s, bigger than Starbucks.” Stephanie Alias, left, a professional chef working at NMCUSD, teams up to mix cabbage and radish, a garnish for green pozole. Connie Mahusay prepares corn on the cob for lunch at North Monterey County High School. Many school districts, including NMCUSD, have a main kitchen where they prepare hot meals and send out food to other schools.