02.13.18

Behind the Kitchen Doors

Behind the kitchen doors at Sweetwater Unified

A series of articles designed to look at the people and processes that are making Sweetwater Union HSD’s Nutrition Services department a pioneer.

TRAINING THE PROS & DEVELOPING NEW RECIPES
by Larissa Casillas

Jonathan Morris, the Nutrition Services Area Supervisor at Sweetwater Union High School District, remembers seeing something during his site visits that didn’t align with the district’s new wellness rule.

Homemade chicken noodle bowl

A freshly prepared version of Jonathan Morris’s all natural chicken noodle bowl recipe.

“I had been seeing some kids running around campus with a Cup-O-Noodles in hand,” says Morris, who has been working for the district for 6 years, first as a site supervisor and now as the nutrition area services coordinator.

The students, explains Morris, were technically not supposed to have them. He suspects they were either bringing them from home or buying them in an underground market on campus. Regardless, he saw this as an opportunity to get creative and provide a homemade alternative to the sodium-heavy instant soup.

But he couldn’t do this alone; he called on Chef Ron Troyano from Alchemy San Diego, who works as a food consultant for the district. Together they bounced ideas off of each other. The result is a vegetable noodle soup that mimics the flavor profile of the high sodium version, but is significantly higher in nutritional value.  

Chicken noodle bowl ingredients

Sweetwater Schools’ all natural noodle bowl features fresh veggies and homemade chicken broth.

They’re currently testing it out across Sweetwater Union HSD at cafeterias on 23 different campuses before they start officially serving it on their menu. Morris says the dish has been introduced successfully in some sites while encountering hurdles in others, so they’re now fine-tuning it to make it consistent across all schools.  

This is what Morris likes to call the Pandora’s box effect at Sweetwater Union HSD. An idea is born, and then different team players get to work to bring it to life, involving many different aspects. The process couldn’t be complete without the input of students and the proper execution of staff.

One example: Morris says he always keeps in mind the labor intensity of meals when coming up with new recipes. Therefore, to cut some of the prep work for the all-natural Noodle Bowl dish, he used USDA frozen fresh vegetables to minimize the chopping.

The team then worked on the preparation of the broth and tested out different noodles to see which kind worked best.  

Sweetwater nutrition professional development

Training sessions with area chefs is just one aspect of the professional development that Sweetwater Union HSD provides its Nutrition Services staff.

One of Morris’s other recipe creations that have been successfully implemented into the menu is a vegetable fritter made out of poached tomato, onions, pureed black beans and garbanzo beans, and spices.

Morris comes from the restaurant industry and remembers not having to deal with nutritional guidelines.

“You have to be able to walk the fine balance as a responsible business,” he says of his recipe development.

The district has moved away from heat-and-serve foods filled with preservatives, fillers, and soy or vegetable-textured protein.

While he says most kids are happy with meat, cheese or some kind of carb for lunch – you can’t cater to that all of the time. So he finds himself having to get creative to be able to serve healthy food that kids are actually going to come for.

Noodle bowl with vegetables

Another bountiful noodle bowl from Jonathan Morris’s recipe.

And as the district’s nutritional outlook has shifted, so has their equipment to facilitate the scratch cooking and other techniques they’re now doing. This has been the ongoing procurement process of finding the right equipment: refrigerators, ovens, pots and pans, hot boxes and knives.

Similarly, the staff training is an ongoing process at Sweetwater Union HSD.

Chef Ron Troyano

Chef Ron Troyano has helped train more than 200 Sweetwater Union HSD kitchen staff.

Chef Ron Troyano estimates some 220 staff members at Sweetwater Union HSD have gone through their training. Everyone from line cooks, assistants, and managers have been taught safety measures, proper food handling, and knife skills.  

Sweetwater kitchen knife skills training

School kitchen team members practice their knife skills at a recent training day.

They also do site-specific training.

Troyano says morale-boosting and motivational training are also important components of their training. “The tired, old lunch lady stereotype is something we want to get away from,” he says. “We want to motivate the staff and show them that hands-on cooking can be rewarding and fun as opposed to heat-and-serve.”

Troyano says the camaraderie that already exists at Sweetwater Union HSD is one of the best parts about teaching there.

“At my last training three weeks ago, everyone was coming back from winter break and the staff was giving each other hugs, saying ‘it’s so nice to see you again’,” he recalls.

As for Morris, he says the best part about his job is his interaction with the students. “My customer base is really cool, they keep you energized,” he says.

He’s noticed other districts are jumping on board seeing what Sweetwater has been able to do to serve cleaner, more nutritional food. “The push for better food in schools is a mark that we need to keep up with in time,” he says.

01.22.18

Southwest High School’s Farm Pioneers Food Sustainability


Southwest High School, located in San Diego’s South Bay, is in the midst of a pioneering initiative that may well prove to be a model for schools across the county, state and the nation. The school, in cooperation with the district’s Nutrition Services department and a number of grants, is in the midst of developing its own food system, with the first step coming in the form of a sustainable farm which can grow produce to sell and serve at all schools in the Sweetwater Union High School District.

Southwest High School students are responsible for caring for the chickens. During winter break, they self-organized into teams to take shifts maintaining the farm even though classes were out for three weeks. This is a small group of the many students caring for the farm.

The Vision
That vision was conceived by the district’s Director of Nutrition Services, Eric Span, a former chef who leads the department’s visionary efforts. Span, who grew up in Chicago, believes that food can be a healing agent, a vital part of communities, and a forum for those communities to enter into conversation about health and nutrition. He realized that some under-utilized land at a school was filled with possibility to do something special at Southwest High School.

Eric Span, Nutrition Services Director for Sweetwater Union HSD, had a vision for a school-based urban farm to supply schools with fresh, locally produced foods.

“I saw this as a great opportunity to do something different, and the entrepreneurial side of me saw that we could grow our own food and serve it in our cafeterias.

An Enthusiastic Ally
He found an ally in Dr. Hector Arias, head of the engineering academy at Southwest and the creator of the school’s eco-engineering course. Having established himself as an ace engineering student during his undergraduate work in Mexico, Dr. Arias then began graduate level work in engineering as a Fulbright scholar, studying at Louisiana State University, where he earned his PhD.

Dr. Hector Arias and his Eco-Engineering students have designed, built and maintained a thriving (and growing) chicken farm at the school. That’s just the first step.

After several years of teaching and research, including a period at San Diego State University, Dr. Arias accepted an invitation from Sweetwater Union to help bolster the engineering department at Southwest High School. The program is booming, with students winning national awards in robotics, as well as gaining valuable first hand insight from working engineers and architects in San Diego.

Span and Arias quickly gained the support and encouragement of Southwest’s Principal, Lee Romero, and the group set out to execute the idea for a farm.

Southwest High School Principal Lee Romero in front of just one of the thriving chicken coops at the school.

The school began applying for and being awarded a series of grants that have helped to fund and facilitate the steps toward the full scale farm.

Next Step: Build
With the grant money in hand, the classes were able to construct chicken coops, raised growing boxes, and a supply shed for storage of tools, seed, feed and other farming resources; the team also added the care and maintenance of those assets into the eco-engineering curriculum.

Butter lettuce and mixed green lettuce growing in one of several raised planter boxes at Southwest, with a greenhouse in the background.

The chicken coops house close to 400 birds, which produce between 10-12 dozen eggs every day. The Nutrition Services department buys all of the eggs that it can for use in offerings such as protein boxes similar to those found at certain global coffee chains, as well as in cooking for the district’s meals.

While most chickens stay in their coops, a few make it outside for a walk around the school grounds. Free range, indeed.

Cyndi Roncoroni, an English teacher and advisor of the eco-engineering farm says that her students are learning many lessons, from the practicality of farming (such as composting, or using egg shells and pine cones to make pesticides), to valuable lessons in service and leadership. During the recent winter break, students designed a workflow calendar to ensure that chickens were fed and cared for despite classes being on break.

Ms. Roncoroni, as part of the program’s Zero Waste Initiative, helps guide the students so that nothing goes into the trash. Leftover food from the school’s cafeteria goes to feed the chickens, and other waste from the farm helps to fertilize crops.

Mrs. Roncoroni, left, explains the students’ role in caring for the farm to Devon Walker, a Registered Dietitian and Area Supervisor for Nutrition Services.

The work at Southwest is designed to serve as a model for other farming programs across the district, and Span envisions possibilities on every campus. “We may have some that are specialized, growing spices, or installing fruit orchards, whereas other schools may grow leafy vegetables, and so on. The goal is to have a food system that students can look at and know where their food comes from every day.”

“Being located in the South Bay, we are innovative and inventive and have a commitment from the county with our awarded grants,” said Southwest Principal Lee Romero. “We believe in giving these students the opportunity of becoming the next generation of great engineers, and we wouldn’t be Southwest High school today without incredible teachers, like Dr. Arias, Ms. Roncoroni, and Eric Span for our eco-engineering farm” said Mr. Romero.

Continues Span, “As a chef, it provides creativity that students will find interesting and appetizing. Students are asking and wanting something different.”

What appears to be a field of dying grass is the space being prepped for a larger scale farm at the school. The grass is being left to die out so that it is easier, and less expensive, to plow for the farm.

The Nutrition Services department is also working to introduce students to new menu items  that fit into their cultural taste buds, such as a shrimp taco or noodle bowls with homemade broth and fresh vegetables. Span and his team are  also working with students to explore menu options with the humane society, as requests for a greater variety of vegetarian and vegan options have come from students.

The freshest eggs in the south bay are at Southwest High School!

In addition to raised garden beds and the chicken farm, Southwest High School has planted water-saving fruit-bearing plants around the school instead of merely decorative plants, utilizing all areas of the school to produce food.

Grape vines decorate one of the outside walls of Southwest High School.