On March 17, Tustin Unified School District Nutrition Services kitchens kicked off its participation in the “California Thursdays” program, a collaboration between the Center for Ecoliteracy and participating school districts to serve healthy, freshly prepared school meals featuring California-grown foods. The program, which was first developed and piloted in the Oakland Unified School District during the 2013-2014 school year, asks participating districts to commit to serving one meal a week of fresh, California-grown food.
Tustin Unified School District is the first school district in Orange County to participate in the “California Thursdays” program, which now includes 58 school districts across the state that serve over 283 million meals a year to 1.75 million students. Seedstock recently spoke with Jim Kamuran, Manager of Nutrition Services for Tustin Unified School District, to find out how the district got involved with the program, the results thus far and what the future looks like for local food in Tustin’s schools.
Q. and A. with Jim Kamuran, Manager of Nutrition Services for Tustin Unified School District:
Q. Grow Local OC: How did Tustin Unified come to be the first Orange County school district to sign on to the “California Thursdays” program?
A. Jim Kamuran: I went to a meeting with the Orange County Food Access Coalition and two other districts, and the director of the Center for Ecoliteracy was on the phone talking about the program. The other two districts were talking about going forward, but ultimately decided not to. So we’re the first.
We see it as an opportunity to network with other districts, share what we’ve been doing, and learn from them. There are networks that are very local, and then there are some national efforts under way, but this is somewhat unique in that it focuses on sharing California-based products.
Q. Grow Local OC: What are Tustin Unified’s goals for this program?
A. JK: The overall goal is to create and serve as many menu items as we can that are wholesome, flavorful, and educational for the students, both about nutrition and about the food culture of California and our local district. We aim to serve items with fewer ingredients, additives and preservatives every day of the week. “California Thursdays is just a catchphrase that the Center for Ecoliteracy came up with as a catalyst.
Q. Grow Local OC: How many meals does Tustin Unified serve its students each day?
A. JK: We offer meals to 24,000 students each day. We serve 9,000 lunches and 5,000 breakfast meals. Breakfast is offered at various sites either before school or mid-morning during nutrition break.
Q. Grow Local OC: What are some of the challenges involved in incorporating fresh local foods into school cafeteria menus?
A. JK: The discussion of how to feed kids better has gone back and forth for decades. Some of the obstacles are the economics of commodity foods, the challenges of sourcing, and the costs of labor. You can’t get totally away from commodity foods; they are subsidized and that’s part of your budget. It’s a matter of working around that, building in the needed infrastructure and staffing to implement forward-thinking processes within the budget that you have.
It helps if you have local farms around you that deliver and have procedures in place to provide volume. There is nothing like being able to go directly to the farm or have the farmer come to you; that’s a big benefit that we don’t really have right now, although we have done it in the past with citrus. Working directly with farmers is one of our goals for the future.
But we do have a large distributor, Gold Star Foods, that we are working with. They specialize in pulling together different farms and making the products available to school districts. We have been sourcing sustainable fish from Real Good Fish in Monterey. Alan Lovewell, the founder and CEO, is a chef; he came in last week to do a fish taco tasting. And we get a rice blend from InHarvest, a northern California based artisanal grain company.
Q. Grow Local OC: Does Tustin Unified School District have a target percentage for locally sourced food?
A. JK: No, we do as much as we can. We still use commodities; there’s no way we have the labor to produce everything from the raw state. But we’re striving to create the infrastructure to do more and more, and we’re always looking for opportunities.
Q. Grow Local OC: What new healthy menu items Tustin kids get as part of the “California Thursdays” program?
A. JK: At the high school, new menu items with California ingredients include fish tacos with local fish, antibiotic-free Foster Farms spicy turkey burgers, and Al Pastor and Lavash wraps with grilled vegetables and hummus or turkey and black beans. Elementary and middle schools will get antibiotic-free barbeque teriyaki drumsticks.
Next year we’re going to mix it up, do street tacos with different proteins like wholesome chicken and pork. We do a barbecue at the high school every day and once a week at the middle schools; next year we’re scaling that up and one middle school will have a barbecue every day.