Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools

Cooking With California Food In K-12 Schools

Tue 04 Oct 2011

Story by Alice Lee Tebo

In August, California school food innovators flocked to UC Davis for a statewide conference. But this wasn’t just your typical conference, packed with presentations from a podium. It was also a lively, hands-on cooking school. Food service directors representing 41 school districts and 1.3 million students donned aprons and hairnets for some creative culinary fun, rolling up their sleeves to road-test recipes from the Center for Ecoliteracy’s new cookbook, Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools.

Every year, 900 million meals are served to students in California schools. That’s 900 million opportunities to provide wholesome nourishment, build lifelong eating habits, and support local agriculture. In this spirit, we here at the Center for Ecoliteracy — a nonprofit in Berkeley dedicated to education for sustainable living and school lunch reform— produced Cooking with California Food as a professional development guide and menu-planning strategy for school food service staff.

Funded by TomKat Charitable Trust and co-written by award-winning cookbook authors Georgeanne Brennan and Ann M. Evans, it offers ideas for adding more fresh, local, healthy ingredients to school meals while celebrating our state’s rich history and cultural heritage. It introduces the dynamic 6-5-4 School Lunch Matrix, a new concept based on six dishes students already know and love, five ethnic flavor profiles, and four seasons. Think Rice Noodles with Bok Choy (Asian), Ham and Yam Pizza (African), Albondigas Soup (Latin American), Basil-Walnut Pesto with Whole Wheat Rigatoni (European/Mediterranean), and Tabbouleh Salad (Middle Eastern/Indian), among many other delicious dishes not often seen on school cafeteria plates.

All recipes are family-size so that small groups of food service cooks can work together in a kitchen setting and collectively try out recipes, share their opinions, and plan menus. (Download the cookbook for free at We will post scaled-up recipes with nutritional analysis on our website in the near future.) While the cookbook is designed to feature California ingredients and growing seasons, most recipes can be adapted to any region in the country.

“It’s a practical resource that meets the day-to-day needs of people on the front lines of changing school food,” says Zenobia Barlow, Center for Ecoliteracy executive director. “The recipes were piloted with nutrition services staff in the Davis school district for three years, so they emerge out of real-world experience, not some abstract concept.”

Last spring, we also successfully piloted the cookbook’s strategy in two sessions for Oakland Unified School District, where the leadership is wholly committed to creating what food service director Jennifer LeBarre envisions as “the best meal program in California.”

With support from TomKat Charitable Trust and the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, we are engaged in a feasibility study on how to transform food in OUSD by applying our Rethinking School Lunch planning framework. The district is already making great strides in procuring fresh, local fruits and vegetables, but front-line cooks need to know how to actually integrate them into nutritious, kid-friendly meals. Cooking with California Food provides them with a simple strategy for revising and refining their menus.

Our cookbook is also a source of inspiration for the nation’s second-largest district, Los Angeles Unified. “The 6-5-4 focus… is brilliant and long overdue,” notes David Binkle, Deputy Director of Food Services. “The bar has been raised to return schools to their roots of cooking and baking from scratch by incorporating fundamental culinary principles with real, fresh ingredients.”

Given that L.A. Unified serves up a staggering 650,000 meals per day and over 123 million meals per year, Binkle was ideally suited to serve as a consultant on our feasibility study, looking at the financial implications of food reform in Oakland schools, and as a keynote speaker at August’s conference and cooking school. Perhaps most importantly, the former chef believes that the dishes in Cooking with California Food will please the pickiest palates of them all. “It’s a truly wonderful collection of recipes that kids will actually enjoy for years to come.”

About the author: Alice Lee Tebo is the Communications Coordinator for the Center for Ecoliteracy


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