Bee in Turlock: Schools strive for farm-fresh food

Lucia Silveira grills hamburgers in preparation for lunch at Turlock High School. California Thursdays highlights more California farm products being incorporated into school meals.
Lucia Silveira grills hamburgers in preparation for lunch at Turlock High School. California Thursdays highlights more California farm products being incorporated into school meals. dnoda@modbee.com

At one food-service counter at Turlock High School, students can get sandwiches made with all-natural beef or chicken on whole-wheat rolls. At another, the same meats end up in burritos made with a healthy touch.

The Turlock Unified School District has been a leader in ditching bad cafeteria fare in favor of items with less fat and salt and more vitamins and fiber. On top of that, it has strived to get most of its food from California sources.

The efforts have drawn statewide attention. Turlock is one of 15 districts chosen for next week’s launch of California Thursdays, a campaign that encourages the serving of wholesome foods from in-state producers on Thursdays.

Not much will change in Turlock, because students already get this stuff every day, but Thursdays will be a chance to highlight particular items, said Scott Soiseth, district director of child nutrition.

He talked about the campaign last week while showing off Turlock High’s deli counter, where students can get, among other things, tri-tip from cattle raised without hormones or antibiotics.

“If you had been here 20 years ago, this was a snack bar serving pizza pockets and processed burritos,” Soiseth said.

The daily choices on the campus include a Mexican food counter, burgers from a mobile charcoal grill, and rotisserie chicken served with vegetables. All of the dishes, along with the breakfast menu, meet new federal standards that emphasize low fat, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables.

“It’s good, and there are a lot of options to choose from,” freshman Matthew Lambert said as he waited in line at the Mexican food counter.

Sophomore Ashley Fraiser, a fan of the beef burritos, agreed. “I think they make the meat healthy,” she said. “It’s not greasy or anything.”

Freshman Arianna Lara dined on a chicken burrito. “It’s really good and it’s healthy and I like chicken,” she said.

Turlock has one menu for its high schools and junior high schools, another for elementary schools, all served under its real.fresh logo. Soiseth said the total cost to the district is about 30 percent higher than conventional food service, but it’s worthwhile if students are healthy and throwing away less food.

California Thursdays is a project of the Center for Ecoliteracy, based in Berkeley, and several partners. Districts taking part include Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and Oakland, so a large portion of California students are involved. Lodi and Elk Grove are the only other Central Valley participants.

Closely sourced food supports farmers and is easy on the environment, said Adam Kesselman, manager of the center’s Rethinking School Lunch program. He cited research showing that each $1 in local spending has $1.86 worth of economic ripples.

California is by far the most diverse farm state in the nation, so it’s not tough to buy a lot of cafeteria items within its boundaries. Soiseth said Turlock gets about 80 percent of its food in the state. Nearby districts, including Modesto, Salida and Manteca, also have strong efforts.

Some advocates have a strict definition of local food, limiting it to a 100-mile radius, but that takes in plenty, too. For Turlock, it can mean peaches and apricots from within Stanislaus County, salad greens from the Salinas Valley, rice from the Sacramento Valley and citrus from the Fresno area.

The district gets dairy products from Crystal Creamery in Modesto, produce from LaRosa Farms near Hughson, all-natural hot dogs from Lodi and whole-grain bread from Fresno, among its numerous suppliers.

It will celebrate its part in the new campaign Oct. 23 with an invitation-only lunch at Turlock High. Some of the cafeteria fare, such as pizza on whole-grain crust, will be served.

Kesselman said the campaign grew out of a pilot project in Oakland last year and is based on taste tests involving students.

“Kids like the food,” he said. “It’s fresh and tastes great.”