The Waiting Game

Sacramento City Unified’s central kitchen slow to progress

Back Commentary Jun 6, 2016 By Amber Stott

I’m a locavore — an advocate for eating local food. Local food tastes better. Sadly, kids eating school lunches rarely know the joys of a blueberry or tomato grown in their own communities. In Sacramento, school cafeterias don’t have the equipment or capacity to store and prepare fresh, local food. They’re designed mainly to warm frozen, processed food.

In 2012, taxpayers approved Measure R to fund a solution to this problem: build a “central kitchen,” a large kitchen that serves as a hub for the whole district, where meals are prepared from scratch daily and distributed same-day to all schools. Yet, four years later, kids are still waiting for a better school lunch.

On May 5, the Sacramento City Unified School District school board received an assessment from the Central Kitchen Task Force about the viability of local properties for a central kitchen site. I’m on the task force, and I joined a group of food activists at the meeting to speak in favor of building the central kitchen and to inspire a sense of urgency to keep the project on track. Two feasible sites have been identified. One is owned by the district, but not centrally located to school sites. The other is favorably located next to the SCUSD’s existing food warehouse, but isn’t owned by the district. No action has been taken yet to select a site — the first barrier standing between Sacramento students and their local watermelon. Board Member Jay Hansen, who appointed the task force, says he anticipates an action on property by August.

Let me provide context for the problems that lead to the need for a central kitchen. It’s not the fault of “lunch ladies” that our kids aren’t eating fresh school meals; it’s a systems-level problem that runs much deeper. Through my job as executive director of the Food Literacy Center and as a volunteer appointee of the SCUSD’s task force, I work closely with district staff from the Nutrition Services Department. They’re the ones banging their pots and pans the loudest to resolve the fresh food issue, working to fill school lunches with local fruits and veggies (defined by the district as grown within 250 miles). But making these dreams come true takes a lot of work.

“If Sacramento is to deliver on its promise as the Farm-to-Fork Capital, we need to start with what we feed students in our schools,” says Nutrition Services Director Brenda Padilla. With a master’s degree in human nutrition, she’s the one in charge of the meals our kids eat. And she’s eager to improve the choices offered to them.

Campuses Not Equipped

When it comes to serving local food, the story is like an orange with a very stubborn peel: It’s hard to get to the good stuff. In this case, federal school lunch regulations don’t stand in the way  — it’s a problem of equipment and infrastructure.

Many SCUSD campuses were built during an era when processed foods reigned supreme, with small kitchens designed to serve one goal: heat and serve. They are tiny spaces without much prep or storage space, or even working ovens. The majority of these heat-and-serve kitchens are serving our district’s most vulnerable students: elementary kids, whose bodies are still developing. (Several high school cafeterias were built with larger kitchens equipped to prepare more fresh foods: up to 50 percent, compared to 10 percent fresh district-wide.) During their workday, cafeteria staff are lucky to get meals for 47,000 students warmed, served and the kitchens cleaned, let alone to dream of finding the space to wash, chop and prep fresh, local vegetables.

In America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital, we have to do better. And we can. In the past few years, SCUSD equipped each of its cafeterias with a salad bar. Also, this January, Nutrition Services earned a competitive federal Farm-to-School grant (in partnership with Food Literacy Center and Soil Born Farms) to purchase local vegetables to be served in every school salad bar in the district. This is great news for kids, because it means they can eat the freshest and most delicious vegetables available.

But there have been obstacles along the way. The biggest? Because individual school sites don’t have the space and equipment to chop and prep fresh veggies, everything that goes on the salad bar must come ready-to-eat. This usually means pre-washed and sliced salad greens, and veggies that require no cutting, like mini carrots or radishes, which are bite-sized items.

Yet, the salad bars can’t be stuffed with carrots and radishes year-round. What about large heirloom tomatoes? Answer: School sites simply can’t slice them.

One Kitchen for All

How do we solve this problem? SCUSD needs to follow the example of progressive districts  across the country, including in Davis and Elk Grove, and build a central kitchen to serve as a commissary for the entire district. Rather than rebuilding and retrofitting 80 school kitchens in the district (which is cost-prohibitive), SCUSD can build one massive kitchen, where local food is purchased and turned into homemade heat-and-serve meals that are made fresh daily.

“In our current model, we rely far too much on prepackaged meals from vendors,” Padilla says. “With a central kitchen, we can produce and distribute more from-scratch options.” When they have offered fresher options on their menu at select school sites (such as with an outdoor BBQ on one campus), the district has seen participation in school lunch rise.

As the school lunch program’s executive chef, David Edgar, aptly describes it, “I don’t want to serve airplane food. I want home-cooked, restaurant-quality.”

Instead of ordering processed, frozen turkey burgers from another city, the district can make their own using local ingredients in the big central kitchen, and then pack and deliver them fresh. They can also buy crates of slicing tomatoes (or peaches, or zucchini, or watermelon), then prep and package them to drop off at each school.

According to Padilla, until that central kitchen is built, she’s unable to serve watermelon — which needs to be cut — during her summer meal programs. Imagine being a kid in Sacramento and not having watermelon for lunch in summer!

So why don’t we just build this central kitchen already? Well, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news? Sacramento voters approved Measure R, which sets tax dollars aside for school improvements, including the building of a central kitchen. The district currently has $40 million Measure R dollars to spend toward this project. The exact budget for the central kitchen remains to be fleshed out.

The bad news? As board member Hansen says about the project, “If it was easy it would have been done already.” Over the years, SCUSD hasn’t prioritized the kitchen until recently. According to Hansen, who oversees the district’s facilities committee, the district needed to prioritize emergency projects first. Now that these projects are nearing completion, the district is ready to move the central kitchen to the top of its list.

In January, Hansen appointed several community members to the Central Kitchen Task Force, including me. Together, we have toured the existing infrastructure, including the food storage warehouse, that could serve as future locations of a central kitchen. We also ate a school lunch to assess the current conditions of these lunches, and to understand what’s possible if the school could use more local, unpackaged ingredients.

Padilla points out some food-insecure kids eat only one meal a day — and that’s at school. We want that meal to be as healthy as possible. “Without a change like this, the people who suffer the most are our neediest families — those who rely on the food they get in our schools as the best, and sometimes only, meals they will eat in a given day.”


School Plate Debate

What: How should we use Measure R funding? Let’s ask our kids. Join Food Literacy Center and Sacramento Urban Debate League as high school students debate the important issues affecting kids.

When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 7

Where: Fruitridge Community Collaborative, 4625 44th St., Sacramento

Cost: Free, but RSVP required

Info: For more info, visit www.foodliteracycenter.org.