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Above: Local chef Nicholas Petti talks to Feeding Our Future participants.

Second Annual “Feeding Our Future” Inspires and Informs School Food Service Staff

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

On August 13, more than 125 school cooks, kitchen managers, and food service directors from across the North Coast region gathered at Campovida in Hopland to participate in the second annual “Feeding Our Future” training event. In attendance were educators from 12 school districts representing 40 schools across Lake, Mendocino, Sonoma, Humboldt, and Del Norte counties.

Strategically planned to happen just before the school year starts, this one-day conference incorporates culinary training and networking opportunities for school food service staff to share ideas and best practices.

“Most food service staff never get the chance to connect with each other and learn about new and innovative approaches to school food,” says Susan Lightfoot, Coordinator of the North Coast Opportunities Community Action (NCO-CA) Farm2Fork program. “Feeding Our Future helps schools gain momentum toward the shared goal of serving the healthiest, freshest, and most local meals possible to our community’s kids.”

The day was packed with hands-on activities, guest speakers, and – of course – delicious food.

The many speakers included Libee Uhuru, Produce Manager at Ukiah Natural Foods Co-Op, who provided invaluable industry tips on how to maintain freshness in her hit workshop “Getting the Most Out of Your Produce.” Nicholas Petti, chef at Mendo Bistro and Culinary Arts Instructor at Mendocino College, did a hands-on workshop showing how to balance flavor profiles. Campovida’s master gardener Ken Boek led a tour of their award-winning gardens, showcasing the culinary herbs growing there. And Jim Stewart, Head Chef at Ukiah Valley Medical Center, made three side salads featuring all local ingredients to go with lunch.

The main course at lunch was also the main event of the day, a “Top Chef Challenge” in which teams were tasked with creating an inventive wrap based on one of six different cuisines. The 18 teams comprised six members mixed across districts. Each team had to create and execute a wrap using specific ingredients, plus anything they chose from a pantry of goods. Teams then had to invent a name that would entice students to order their wrap off the menu, and serve it up on a decorative platter.

“It was great that they didn’t have a recipe to follow, because all the wraps came out totally different,” says April Cunningham, Food Systems Project Assistant at NCO-CA, who masterminded the wrap event. “They had to get creative, and everyone rose to the challenge.”

Teams may have been inspired by their surroundings: Campovida’s culinary pavilion, a beautiful setting which has hosted the likes of Julia Child and Emeril Lagasse. The raw materials they had to work with were equally impressive. Produce, herbs, and flowers were generously donated by local farmers, many of whom the schools purchase from directly for their meal programs.

“The day has a nice balance: it both inspires and informs,” says Lightfoot. “It gets folks thinking outside the box, but it also gives them pertinent and practical information that will inform their day-to-day work in the schools.”

The food services staff who attended Feeding Our Future agree that a perfect balance was struck between information sharing and hands-on activities. “It’s an exciting way to start the school year,” says Stephanie Guzman, Elementary Site Lead at Yokayo Elementary. “I felt very energized and inspired to return to work.”

Pilar Gray, Director of Food Services at Fort Bragg Unified School District, echoed these sentiments. “All the food services staff left feeling really good about the work they do,” says Gray. “It’s important work that’s more often criticized than acknowledged in our culture, which is unfortunate because they feed our kids every day. So it’s wonderful to see them feeling so encouraged and supported.”

From this encouragement and support comes empowerment. The event recognizes the “lunch lady” as an educator who plays a crucial role in the school system. “Feeding Our Future shows food service staff the power they have to positively impact children’s attitudes about food,” says Cunningham. “They set the tone in the cafeteria for how students feel about healthy eating.”

And, it’s working. School food service staff are noticing more and more that their students are choosing fresh fruits and vegetables over processed foods. Guzman told a story about a young student asking when the “white stuff” that looks like broccoli would be back on the salad bar. “A second grader wants to eat cauliflower?” exclaims Guzman. “I can’t even get my husband to eat cauliflower!”

The effects of Feeding Our Future are wide-reaching, positively impacting not only school food services staff and the students they serve, but the community at large as well.

“With all the focus on serving locally-grown fruits and vegetables, this event supports the North Coast economy and helps build demand for local food,” says Lightfoot. “It’s a win-win for everyone involved.”