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Above: WUSD Food Services staff showcase a beautiful array of sliced fruits prepared during an April 20 training.

Paradigm Shift in School Food at Willits Unified

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The school year is drawing to a close, and plans are already in the works for the next school year. This is especially true for the Food and Nutrition Services team at Willits Unified School District. On Saturday, April 20, they spent the day preparing new recipes from scratch, practicing high-speed fruit and vegetable preparation, and planning ahead for next year’s Farm to School efforts.

The training was the latest piece of a years-long effort by WUSD Food Service Director Christy Wisdom and her dedicated team to redesign the school meals program. New federal regulations require a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to be served daily, and WUSD has proven it is up for the challenge.

Born and raised in Willits and a WUSD alumna, Wisdom has worked in the WUSD Food Services department since 1998 and has enthusiastically led the effort to provide healthier meals to students since becoming director in June 2011. Her primary goal has been to serve less packaged and more from-scratch foods. “Currently, we’re doing all-scratch cooking at least three days a week,” says Wisdom. “It has far exceeded my goal.”

By next year the plan is to get to 90% from-scratch cooking featuring locally-grown food. This goal is possible thanks in part to WUSD’s partnership with North Coast Opportunities-Community Action (NCO-CA) and Farm2Fork, a grant-funded program operated by NCO-CA and coordinated by Susan Lightfoot.

WUSD has been working with Farm2Fork since February 2012 to increase the amount of locally-grown fruits and vegetables served in schools across Mendocino County. “Serving local food in schools is much more complex than meets the eye,” says Lightfoot. “Farm2Fork helps work out the kinks by making connections with farmers, working out logistics, and giving food service staff the tools and support they need to make it happen.”

Farm2Fork hired Nancy May, a former Food Service Director for Healdsburg Unified known for her success in providing high-quality school meals. May and April Cunningham, Food Systems Project Assistant at NCO-CA, have been working side-by-side with WUSD school kitchen staff. In addition to hands-on assistance, Farm2Fork has provided high-speed food processors that quickly and efficiently slice, dice, and julienne fruits and vegetables. And, through a USDA Community Facilities grant that NCO-CA both sponsored and provided almost $20,000 in matching funds, WUSD has received $35,000 in new kitchen appliances and equipment. Together, these resources have empowered WUSD staff to serve nutritious, from-scratch meals they can be proud of. “[NCO-CA] is such a good support team,” says Wisdom. “They’ve really been incredible. We couldn’t have done it without them.”

For the 2013-2014 school year, with support from Farm2Fork, Wisdom will triple the amount of produce ordered from local farms. By working directly with farmers, WUSD will ensure they are planting the crops the district needs for its school kitchens. And, with a new plan taking shape for Brookside Farm at Brookside Elementary, students may soon be eating food they watched grow. Farm2Fork has been working with WUSD on a new concept: to lease the land to a farmer in exchange for affordable, fresh produce for the cafeteria. “It’s a groundbreaking concept,” says Lightfoot. “We’re excited about the potential for this new design to revolutionize how schools can source their food.”

The paradigm shift in school food is a gradual one, but the slow pace benefits the process. With the new focus on local, seasonal produce, the schools need to plan their menus accordingly. Food services employees need to experiment with what kids like to eat, and since food preferences change at different ages, the high school menus will not work for elementary students. “We’ve taken out a lot of choices and focused on more healthy menu items,” says Wisdom. “You get some grumbles, but after a week or two the kids are used to it. They especially love all the fruit options.”

There must also be education and buy-in among staff, students, families, and the community at large on the importance of “real food” from a young age. Many studies have proven the link between a healthy diet and mental, physical, and emotional wellness, as well as academic performance. According to one study conducted in 2008 published in the Journal of School Health, students with higher fruit and vegetable intake and reduced fat intake are significantly less likely to fail literary assessments. With so many students getting the majority of their daily calories from school meals, it’s critically important for schools to provide well-balanced meals to students.

That’s exactly what WUSD Food Services staff are working together to accomplish. There’s no doubt that these changes have brought the staff together, empowering them to make the kind of food they have long wanted to serve. With the days of frozen and packaged foods a thing of the past, the dedicated employees in WUSD kitchens are nourishing students and staff alike with food they are proud to serve.