I collect aprons like other people collect coins. There are dozens hanging in my kitchen, so many I suspect several have never actually been used. So it was with some self-consciousness that I accepted yet another apron last fall from the Center for Ecoliteracy.
The Center was handing out hundreds of aprons to California school food service directors along with recipes for healthy school meals. At the Palm Springs Convention Center, tables were lined with ingredients, tools of the trade such as mixing bowls and measuring cups, and two burner stoves. Our task was to locate our group and get cooking; we’d be making lunch not for hungry children but for hungry conference attendees at the California Food for California Kids conference.
A far-ranging project of the Center for Ecoliteracy and the TomKat Charitable Trust, the California Food for California Kids initiative began with a simple question, “Are California kids eating California food?” The Center answered this question for twelve California crops, determining how and when California crops such as almonds, tomatoes, peaches and olives are incorporated into school meals. In the process, they discovered there was plenty of opportunity to bring more California foods into California schools. To assist in this endeavor, the Center developed a suite of recipes using a 6–5–4 menu-planning matrix.
With six dishes, five ethnic flavor profiles, and four seasons, the recipes feature fresh California ingredients in pasta dishes, wraps, and salads, plus ten rice bowl dishes. For instance, schools can adapt an Asian rice bowl using soy sauce, chicken, and peppers to a Middle Eastern/Indian flavor profile by highlighting curry powder and ginger instead. Seasonality is easily achieved by substituting a spring vegetable like snap peas for a fall vegetable such as bell pepper. At the conference last fall, teams cooked up every single recipe and then feasted on the final results.
With help from a USDA Farm to School grant, this school year, Oakland Unified School District is introducing “California Thursdays.” On this day, the district highlights freshly prepared meals with ingredients sourced entirely from California. On a recent Thursday they served: Mary’s Chicken, raised in Sanger; sugar snap peas from Tomahawk Farms in Santa Maria; organic strawberries from the Alba Growers’ Cooperative in Salinas; and brown rice from Sunwest Foods in Sacramento Valley. All together, the school district spent over $13,000 locally and served over 16,000 lunches.
In the weeks to come, Oakland Unified will be rolling out some of the recipes we cooked and tasted together last fall. They’ll introduce students to Kung Pao Chicken with Bell Peppers, Lemon Oregano Roasted Chicken, Chorizo and Greens over Penne pasta and Sesame Soba Noodles with Bok Choy and Tofu.
Oh to be a kid again in a California school (on a Thursday).
Editor’s Note: To learn more about the USDA Farm to School Program, sign-up for the Farm to School E-letter.