A change in command in Orcutt school kitchens aims to bring back the salad, and then some.
Orcutt Union School District has recruited Bethany Markee, formerly of Solvang Elementary School, to serve as its new director of child nutrition, and changes are already on the books.
"We've got a lot of balls in the air, but that's OK," Markee said. "It's a big job with lots of regulation that gets complicated and frustrating, especially for someone who knows how to cook, but I really tend to have a great attitude about it."
Janet Stevenson will serve as Solvang Elementary's new food service director. The district plans to maintain its made-from-scratch menu that emphasizes whole grains, low sugar, local produce and milk from dairies that don't use hormones. The school will also provide for students with special dietary needs, according to the school's Viking Cafe webpage.
Orcutt schools moved their menus out of the canned-food age under Janette Wesch, who served as child nutrition director from 1992 until her retirement June 2015. During her tenure, the district integrated its nutrition program with physical education, and developed school gardens through funding of grant programs like the 2003 Linking Education to Activity and Food (LEAF) Pilot Program and the 2010's Cool Food Initiative presented by the Orfalea Foundation.
"They used to cook quite a bit from scratch here. It was very popular," Markee said.
But the district's menus didn't keep up with ever-changing regulations, so in 2015-16, after Wesch's retirement, the district went back to easy-to-quantify packaged ingredients.
"Most of those old recipes were probably healthier than the packaged ingredients, but they needed some tweaking to pass audit," Markee said.
Tweaking may be among Markee's specialties.
Markee was raised on the East Coast by a family that cherished its garden and the foods it supplied the family kitchen. She fell in love with food, its source and preparation. By the time she was 14, she was already baking at her grandfather's side.
Markee cooked in various restaurants and worked her way up to chef and general manager before she had her own children.
"I got very interested in what children eat and what they don't eat and how disconnected they are from their entire food system," Markee said. "They don't know where their food comes from. They don't know a carrot comes out of the ground. The only way they know how to eat a potato is as a french fry."
Cooking in restaurants was fun, but it didn't help children.
With guidance from the Orfalea Foundation, Markee found herself at Solvang Elementary, where she spent the past five years developing healthy menus with ingredients sourced largely from local, organic farms.
Working with the foundation, she also developed a partnership with Santa Ynez Valley Fruit & Vegetable Rescue which directs free local produce from farms, farmers markets, home gardens and orchards to charitable organizations and school lunch programs in Santa Barbara, Santa Ynez and Santa Maria.
According to Veggie Rescue Executive Director Amy Derryberry, the school also worked with Orfalea to establish its campus garden and to fund the purchase of Veggie Rescue's delivery van.
"When I took the job at Solvang, my goal was to change the food to scratch cooking and to feed as many schools as I could," Markee said.
Somehow she avoided the "lunch lady" moniker as students began affectionately referring to her instead as "Chef B." She taught students about their food, and then began teaching cooking classes during summer sessions.
"They held knives, made recipes, served parents, cleaned up everything they dirtied," she recalled. "They can really learn and accomplish such a tremendous amount, and not one of them ever said they were bored."
At Solvang Elementary, she learned that students are more likely to test new things away from home.
"You get junior high kids who are hungry 24 hours a day and anything you put in front of them, they'll try. Or they see their friends try it and they're much more willing to try something new," Markee said.
Case in point: the kale chips she introduced at the Solvang school.
"They ask for them by name, and they're very easy to make," she said.
Kitchen staff mixes kale, donated by the veggie rescue, with oil and "a tiny bit of salt," then bakes them until they're crispy.
"Food education helps them make way better decisions, keeps them more connected with their food, puts them in charge by providing knowledge that they can base decisions on," Markee said. "If nothing else, it's education on their food that they can use when they are in charge of feeding themselves as adults."
In 2013, Solvang Elementary was one of five schools nationwide granted the Golden Carrot Award by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The award recognizes food service professionals doing an exceptional job of improving the healthfulness of school lunches. The Physicians Committee looks for programs that encourage kids to eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables and that offer plenty of vegetarian, low-fat, whole grain and nondairy options.
Markee had hoped to convert the school's kitchen to a commercial production kitchen, but that fell through.
Then Orcutt came calling.
"They have 10 schools, each with some sort of kitchen, and a small central kitchen. They all need some updating of equipment, but the infrastructure is here," Markee said. "That's 50 percent of what I want. Orcutt also has a very long-term, dedicated staff of people who like to cook, who have a wealth of knowledge."
Experience has taught them that change needs to come in steps, not a landslide.
First change this year was to bring back an updated chicken teriyaki with brown rice, a popular house-made chili with cornbread and a house-made macaroni and cheese. A variety of fruits and vegetables is also making its way back onto the menu.
"She has a real sense of energy for what she is doing. I respect someone who doesn't just plan the menu, but who helps cook it," said Joe Dana, principal at Orcutt Acadeemy and Olga Reed Elementary School in Los Alamos, and director of Orcutt's charter programs.
In September, Markee visited kindergarten classrooms to talk to students about salads and healthy food choices.
"It was really neat because she's trying to reach out to kids from the very get go to make the right food choices. She's a wonderful addition to our team," Dana said.
By mid-September, gourmet salads were offered in addition to the school's traditional salad bar.
"They were delicious. Absolutely delicious," Dana said. "The kids enjoy it and the adults enjoy it, too. I'm excited about it because salads can be truly wonderful, and the kids need to see that."
Beginning in October, breakfasts will be offered at all Orcutt school sites.
"Last year, there were lots of apples, oranges and bananas. Now we have plums, peaches and lots of other local produce," Markee said.
The veggie rescue is also beginning to make its way into Orcutt school kitchens. Since sprouting in the Santa Ynez Valley in 2010, the nonprofit has expanded to serve farms and schools from Santa Barbara to Santa Maria Valley.
Markee said she looks forward to reintegrating student gardens at Olga Reed School and Orcutt Junior High into the students' nutrition education. First up, the corn harvest and corn roast offering students samples of food grown right under their noses.
Of course, they'll have to be certified organic, and planted by a certified local gardener or farmer.
"We know it's already planted organic, but it's not certified yet," Markee said.
And so began the money discussion. Certifiers get paid. There's a fee to file. Nutrition program funding is granted only to schools that follow regulations to the letter. That funding helps keep meal costs low for school-age families.
"It all comes down to what a reimbursable meal is," Markee said. "You can serve whatever you want, honestly, but you'll get a fine; you won't get funding. There are a tremendous amount of rules you have to follow if you hope to secure that funding."
Some of the rules sound simple enough. For instance, all grain-based foods much contain at least 51 percent whole-wheat products.
"When you're talking pizza and pasta, it's difficult to make that taste good, but there's no wiggle room," Markee said.
The mandates also generate waste.
"Students are required to take the milk, even if they don't want it, so they end up giving it away or throwing it away," Markee said.
Students are also mandated to take fruits and vegetables, whether or not they will eat them.
"It's a struggle. It's difficult to get children to understand," Markee said.
While some districts serve their foods, Orcutt is offer-based. Students are offered a variety of foods, from which they are required to take a certain balance.
"We offer five items for lunch. They choose three, but one must be a fruit or vegetable, and it has to be half a cup, and it has to be certain ones throughout the week," Markee said.
If baked french "fries" are offered Monday, they can't be offered again in the same week. Instead, Markee said, such offerings must alternate with green, leafy vegetables, red-orange foods, starchy vegetables and beans or legumes.
And though the likes of Harvard School of Medicine have debunked the margarine-for-health myth, schools are still mandated to avoid butter.
"It's complicated, but I know how to cook, and the experienced team here knows how it works, so we can solve some problems pretty quickly," Markee said. "We could make some significant changes here because they're still passionate about cooking, passionate about serving students."
Jennifer Best can be reached at JBest@BestFamilyAdventures.com
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