CUSD Food Tasting Fair educates community

Mystery meat. Ketchup counted as a vegetable. Foods that are processed, frozen and reconstituted until they are barely recognizable.  When school lunches come to mind, the picture isn’t usually pretty.

Meals served in the Claremont Unified School District have changed significantly since Rick Cota was hired as director of Nutrition Services in 2009. When he came on board, virtually 100 percent of school food was processed. Now, 80 percent of CUSD meals are made from scratch. His goal is to offer 100 percent homemade fare.

As kids and their families catch onto the healthy and tasty trend, pupil participation is growing in spades. The year before Mr. Cota came to CUSD, 464,000 complete meals were served. By the end of his first year at CUSD, the number had risen by 18 percent to 549,000.

Mr. Cota hopes that participation—which rose last year to 600,000 meals— will continue to grow. More kids eating at school means more state funding, which he can leverage into his commitment to making district meals as healthy as possible.

Part of his passion stems from a sobering number. Some 32 percent of Claremont school children live below the poverty level. For some children, the breakfast and lunch they eat at school may constitute their only food for the day. (Any child who feels hungry, he noted, can stop by their school cafeteria at any time in the day and grab an apple or banana or other fresh fruit.)

The challenge is to show parents and kids for whom the old “Kitchen Nightmares” image lingers how nutritious and delicious CUSD food is nowadays. A part of his marketing campaign, Mr. Cota has instituted an annual CUSD Food Tasting Fair, which gives those in the district the chance to sample and weigh in on the foods that will be served in local cafeterias in the coming year.

The most recent fair, held Monday, August 8 at El Roble Intermediate School, drew 600 people, about a hundred more than attended last year. All participants had to bring was their appetite.

Guests were given cardboard trays and encouraged to load them up with samples of a dozen CUSD entrees, with fresh produce from a salad bar of the sort that is now offered every day at every school site, and with food from 3 vendors whose wares make regular guest appearances at local schools. These included fresh tacos grilled by Manny’s El Loco Mexican restaurant in West Covina, pizza with fresh-made dough from the local Round Table, and sandwiches from the Claremont Subway. It should also be noted that Mr. Cota has outsourced produce to nearby farmers to ensure freshness and strengthen the local economy.

Representatives were present from groups with which Mr. Cota and the district have partnered to help educate students about nutrition and gardening and the connection between the 2. Spokespeople including those from Sustainable Claremont, Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, the San Antonio High School Food Justice Program and Cal Poly Pomona’s Regenerative Studies and Nutrition programs attended the fair.

Hot meals sampled included cafeteria standbys like macaroni and cheese and chicken enchiladas as well as a couple of items that—should they meet community approval—will be new this year. Among these was a mild chicken chili whose recipe, Mr. Cota shared, is derived from a dish a Claremont teacher used to serve at her bunco parties.

Before leaving the event, participants were asked to fill out a form detailing what food they liked and what food they didn’t like and share any suggestions.

Talking to the kids and families who loaded up their trays in the busy cafeteria, where some staff had been outfitted in themed get-up like apple or grape costumes, there was plenty to like.

Vista del Valley Elementary School principal Dave Stewart said that the abundance of healthy cafeteria choices, which includes innovations like “Meatless Mondays” and “Fresh Fridays” featuring made-from-scratch meals, is welcome. At his last district, he once ate in the cafeteria for a month and was chagrined to find that he gained nearly 15 pounds. Back to his trim self, he said he can eat at the Vista cafeteria without the fear of packing on processed food-related weight.

His first grade year, 8-year-old Chris Cole used to bring food from home, but he started eating in the cafeteria last year. The result has been a pleasant surprise, he said, noting that his cafeteria favorites are pizza and cheese sticks as well as Brunch-for-Lunch days when breakfast foods like pancakes are on the menu.

“I like the food, the drinks—I love everything here!” Chris said.

Andrew Hazelwood, 11, will be heading for El Roble this year after previously attending elementary school in Apple Valley. Asked whether he was apprehensive about matriculating to the junior high level, he said, “School is school,” but added that “the food is better.”

—Sarah Torribio



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