School event will provide tasty choices
The Claremont Unified School District will host its annual Food Tasting Faire on Friday, August 5 from 9 a.m. to noon, giving families in the district a chance to weigh in on food choices that could make their way onto the menu at local schools.
Some 700 people typically turn out for the faire, held in the multipurpose room at El Roble Intermediate School (665 N. Mountain Ave.), sampling free food and filling out a questionnaire gauging which dishes are hits and which are misses.
The event will feature 26 vendors, providing lunch and breakfast items. It’s also a good chance for attendees to meet the local farmers who provide CUSD with organic produce and for those who believe they may qualify to sigh up for the free lunch program.
"We have an opportunity for parents to look, taste and ask questions about the food their kids are going to be eating,” Nutrition Services Director Rick Cota said. “The last couple years, we’ve committed to the things that scored highly and have added them to the menu, so there’s a direct impact.”
Getting feedback is more important than ever, according to Mr. Cota.
Two years ago, strict new requirements mandated by The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act were fully implemented. Any school wishing to participate in free meal programs like the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), the National School Breakfast Program (NSBP) and the Summer Food Service Program—all of which are reimbursed by the United State Department of Agriculture—has some strict dietary guidelines to follow.
Every meal must feature a fruit or vegetable and a whole grain food. Portions must be larger and contain less calories, zero trans-fat, less sugar and 80 percent less sodium than previously allowed.
“I think whether you are a student or whether you are an adult, if you take out 80 percent of the sodium that you are eating, you’re going to notice,” he said.
The act, championed Michelle Obama and signed into law in December of 2010, is aimed at reducing obesity and related illnesses like Type 2 Diabetes. Opponents, however, argue its provisions are so strict they are driving kids away from the cafeteria altogether.
“Most districts have not been able to maintain,” Mr. Cota said. “They are suffering 10 percent or more drops.”
More than 500 schools across the nation have dropped out of the free lunch program in order to have more freedom. That’s not an option for CUSD, Mr. Cota said, because the district has a significant number of students from low-income families who rely on subsidized meals.
CUSD has fared better than many districts, with meal numbers remaining stable at the elementary school level. The district has, however, seen a reduction in the number of lunches purchased at El Roble Intermediate and Claremont High School.
Any loss of sales, however small, is likely a blow to Mr. Cota, who hit the ground running when he assumed his post in 2008.
He took over a program where virtually all food was frozen and pre-prepared. Within three years, he was overseeing a kitchen where 75 percent of the food was made from scratch.
Students and families responded enthusiastically and CUSD went from serving a little over 300,000 school meals per year to serving 600,000.
Fast forward to 2016 and CUSD is down to only about 40 percent fresh-made food.
“We are kind of headed back in the other direction because of having to serve more and more food provided by the USDA,” Mr. Cota said.
Claremont schools can no longer able to bring in many of the outside vendors they once welcomed, including Chick-fil-A and Pick Up Stix.
“Taco Day,” when a local restaurateur would prepare fresh, grilled tacos at the various school sites, is a thing of the past.
“Everyone ate on taco day,” Mr. Cota said. “Students ate, employees ate—there was great participation. Now, we can’t have people making tacos because the food isn’t certified. The gentleman would have to order his meat from a government source. And the tortilla would have had to be a whole-grain, approved tortilla.”
A significant amount of pre-prepared foods have also been eliminated. Hot Pockets, for instance, were once a popular item for students of all age levels.
“Due to new regulations, the company stopped [selling] to schools because they did not want to provide the grain requirements,” Mr. Cota said.
He contents himself that there is one item that is always fresh at CUSD schools, a salad bar stocked with fresh and organic foods. He also realizes he isn’t alone.
“I meet with other directors from other districts on a monthly basis and they have same observations. The grain requirement, the decrease in sodium and other things attributed to the health and wellness plan really has changed the profile of the meals,” Mr. Cota said. “The general comment we get from students is that it’s bland.”
Mr. Cota is nothing if not resourceful.
He has experimented with hot sauce and tahini in an attempt to make nearly salt-free food more flavorful. After the exit of Hot Pockets, he reached out to Round Table, a USDA-certified business that makes a whole-wheat pizza for the district, and asked if they would make a fresh-baked calzone.
The calzone will be among the foods tested at the Food Tasting Faire as well as fresh-made wraps, one which has been rendered more flavorful by the addition of Poblano chiles.
Other additions include Greek yogurt and a new type of chicken nugget made with whole white meat as opposed to a ground product.
It could be that school food restrictions will lighten up a bit in the future.
The School Nutrition Association, the national organization of school nutrition professionals, is campaigning for passage of a Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill.
It would return the sodium levels to those that were required during the first phase of The Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, 1230 mg or less of sodium for K-5 students as opposed to the current limit of 935 milligrams or less.
“By enacting this agreement, Congress will help ease operational challenges for school nutrition programs and ensure more students come back to the cafeteria to enjoy healthy school meals,” the SNA website says.
Ithe meantime, Mr. Cota and his crew will continue to look for ways to make healthy foods taste great. It’s in their own best interest, because he and other CUSD staffers often eat school meals.
What is his current go-to choice?
“I’ll grab something like a basic bean and cheese burrito when I’m driving to one school to the next. I happen to like them and I know I’m going to have 300 calories and good levels of everything,” he said.