VISTA — Officials at Vista Unified School District are adding a little flavor to its school lunches.
With the help of the nonprofit Center for Ecoliteracy, the school district recently implemented California Thursdays, a statewide initiative that encourages school districts to serve locally grown food to students. Vista Unified joins 57 other districts in the state and 12 other districts in the county in the initiative.
“The initiative is important for a variety of reasons,” Amy Haessly, supervisor for nutrition education and training at Vista Unified, said. “My goal is to get students, get our customers, to know where their food is coming from. If they understand where it was grown, how it got to the kitchen and who prepared it for them, I strongly believe they will eat the food and get enjoyment out of it.”
The initiative is simple. The district works with local producers to create recipes they hope the children will love. Some of the local vendors include Solutions Farms, Colors Bakery, S&S Bakery, American Produce and Deal Real Foods.
Since working with the vendors, Haessly said the students have enjoyed fresh foods such as chicken tamales and a white whole-wheat pizza.
“One of the new items we’re promoting is carnitas,” Haessly said. “We roast it in-house in our central kitchen and we are shredding the pork by hand. We’re serving it on chips from a local tortilleria and we feature it with our homemade salsa.”
That’s far different from the days of cold pizza, right?
But California Thursdays isn’t just about bringing quality ingredients to the school cafeterias. Haessly said she hopes the district’s more than 22,000 students will learn to make healthier choices when it comes to nutrition.
“There’s a big challenge in general in school meals,” Haessly said. “A lot of food ends up in the trash can because it doesn’t have value to them. Well, if they understand their choices, they will enjoy the food more and appreciate it.”
Jenifer Golden, the principal at Bobier Elementary School, is already appreciative of the initiative.
Golden said 99 percent of the children at her school qualify for free or reduced lunch. That means the only lunch option that many of those students will have is the one offered in the school cafeteria.
“To know their only choice is a good choice means a lot to me,” Golden said. “I grew up in foster care where my lunch was a cold cheese sandwich. I’ve been very appreciative to see kids in poverty get healthy lunches. They’re just becoming healthier people. I love seeing them become so well-rounded.”
Golden said the initiative also supports the larger school community.
“I have 150 migrant farmworkers out of my 560 families,” Golden said. “Those parents work so hard to bring a lot of great produce so we want to support our local community.”
Haessly said on top of the meals, resources and more education will be offered to the students to help them learn about nutrition.
“The more we can support their eating habits, the more likely they’re going to follow along and change their behavior,” Haessly said. “I want them to get excited about the food they have at school.”