5 Food Service Staff Innovators Serving Freshly-Prepared Meals with Care
Working in a school cafeteria is no easy task. There are hundreds, sometimes thousands, of meals to prepare multiple times a day, bank deposits to reconcile, and complex program regulations to follow – to name just a few of the daily duties.
Here we celebrate five food service professionals who are members of our California Thursdays Network, and how they strive to do more, ensuring students enjoy a freshly-prepared meal, served with care.
Natomas Unified School District
Innovation: Building Local Procurement Connections
Jennifer oversees the purchasing of food for Natomas’ 1.8 million meals, making her the direct link between 19 schools and the distributors and farmers that serve them. Jennifer has been vital in increasing local procurement, prioritizing direct purchases from local farmers, and incorporating new foods into the menu like California apricots and Romanesco broccoli. Jennifer regularly plans farm field trips and special events so that students can truly understand where their food comes and the importance of a healthy meal. Recognizing the impacts she can have on students’ lives and being part of a positive movement is what inspires her to go beyond the basics of her job description.
Jennifer Orosco: "Seeing their faces light up with excitement and their willingness to try something new makes it all worth it."
Elementary Cafeteria Manager
Lodi Unified School District
Innovation: Boosting Taste with Flavor Stations
Anna is the original Lodi “Spice Girl,” a nickname earned after implementing the district’s first flavor station. Anna’s launch of her flavor station, featuring a variety of spices, lemons, and hot sauces, proved so successful they are now featured in all 55 schools of Lodi Unified. Soon after the launch, Anna discovered that her usual produce order had to increase because students were taking more fruits and vegetables and seasoning them at the flavor stations. Through her years working in school cafeterias, Anna has come to realize the positive impact she can have on a child, which inspires her to do more.
Anna Mowrey: "Our students are told all day long what they can or cannot do. The flavor station is something that gives them a choice. And it’s working; students are choosing more fresh food and throwing away less than before."
Chef Arturo Topete
Central Kitchen Manager
Davis Joint Unified School District
Innovation: Advancing Scratch-Cooked Meals District-Wide
Chef Arturo started with the district doing inventory and light meal preparation. Nine years later, he oversees the central kitchen and production of the district’s half a million meals. Arturo has been instrumental in helping the district shift to preparing 70% of its meals from scratch. Preferring food that is freshly prepared, he develops and scales new recipes and introduces necessary processes to ensure students receive the best school meals possible. This includes all of the district’s sauces, taco meat, and a four-step Chicken Adobo preparation that results in a deep, rich color and flavor.
Arturo Topete: "I love making Pork Chile Verde in the traditional way like the local taqueria. It is great to see our food is just as good as any restaurant in town, although we’re a school district."
High School Cafeteria Manager
Lodi Unified School District
Innovation: Enhancing the School Meal Experience
From photo booths to roving sample carts, Donna searches every day for new ways to serve more students. As a high school cafeteria manager, she ensures the 1700 meals served daily at her four main serving lines, salad bar, two carts, and two snack bars set the standard of how school food should taste and look. She has the unique ability to inspire others, encouraging her staff to connect with the students and take pride in their work. She knows her students may not have access to healthy food and if she can get a student to try her meals, she’ll have a return customer, meaning they are receiving the food they need to develop, learn, and be their best selves.
Donna Harvell: "If we are not trying to serve every baby in this school, every day, then what are we here for?"
Elementary Kitchen Lead
Oceanside Unified School District
Innovation: Serving Garden-Grown Meals with a Smile
Mary is the kitchen lead of an elementary school with a thriving school garden. Students routinely deliver their harvest to the kitchen where Mary eagerly accepts it and explores new ways to incorporate it into her school meals. Kale gets blended into breakfast smoothies or baked to become kale chips. Watermelon, bell peppers, and basil are combined into a salsa. Cucumbers are the star of an after-school lesson on making pickles, later served on the salad bar alongside freshly harvested carrots, apples and lettuce. Mary enjoys seeing the students excited to try new things and how the garden to cafeteria connection is at the heart of learning.
Mary Rearick: "My proudest moments are when students bring a wheelbarrow full of produce to the kitchen that their class just harvested. You can see the joy they have in knowing what their hard work produced."