Rick Cota: Claremont, CA Food RevolutionaryTue 31 May 2011
Story by The Food Revolution Team
When Rick accepted the position of Nutrition Services Director for Claremont Unified School District (CUSD) in 2009, his district relied 100% on processed foods and government commodities. Since taking on the role, he has overseen a dramatic transformation in the way his schools do lunch, eliminating 50% processed foods and replacing canned fruit and veg with organic and local produce. At Rick’s schools, staff now order items by the case and process them for meals by hand; the result has been a staggering increase in pupil participation; “We went from 464 000 complete meals served in school year ending 2009 to 549 000 in my first year. This 18% increase is astronomical in this industry,” says Rick.
Although this took some adjustment, as Rick’s employees had to change work habits, centralizing the process of cutting and slicing all produce at their central kitchen each morning sending out during each afternoon, the students have been receptive to the changes and show little sign of missing the old processed foods!
So what are CUSD schools doing differently? All elementary school sites receive a vegetarian made-from-scratch entrée on Mondays as part of the ‘Meatless Mondays’ program and a made-from-scratch entrée every Friday as part of the ‘Fresh Friday’ program. These are prepared from scratch at CUSD’s central kitchen and are combined with another freshly prepared entrée courtesy of a partner vendour. In addition, condiments such as dressings and marinades that used to be bought ready-made are now made fresh.
Students in high school receive fresh, grilled hamburgers handmade and seasoned every morning, Monday through to Thursday. They also receive various foods prepared fresh every day from local restaurants. For example, Ed Inglese - owner of Eddies New York – provides fresh whole-wheat pasta and sauce and Greg Burkle of Dr. Grubbs provides grilled Blackened Chicken, Teryaki bowls and Healthy wraps. “We may be one of the only schools that bring in “Halal” Mediterranean food.” says Rick. These partnerships with local businesses have been integral to the success of the new innovations. “Success in any school program relies on partnership and working together. We are proud to work with partners who feel the same.”
All fruit served within CUSD is now 100% local and often certified organic, and a variety of fruit is chosen, often which students may not have sampled before, such as Kiwi, Crab Apples and Tangelos. “I also use a local strawberry grower in Claremont,” says Rick. “He picks in the early morning and we have strawberries at our door that same afternoon.” Rick’s preference for fresh over canned fruit stems from his years of experience in the Restaurant trade. “I felt that if I was going to highlight enhanced health and wellness, it could not be canned items. Fresh trumps all else for me.”
Within CUSD there are working school gardens in which students have participated in the upkeep of by weeding, planting and harvesting and Rick is hopeful that each school site will have a working garden by the end of next year.
In addition to completely re-vamping the old menu in favour of fresh and homemade, Rick has introduced other innovations with the aim of promoting health and nutrition. He has brought in students from neighbouring colleges to provide nutritional information in classrooms and includes “fun fact cards” at the salad bars whereby students learn about what fresh produce is featured.
When Rick first took on his role, school meal participation was low, but when students began to realize that there were appealing choices he went from serving 314 meals a day at his high school to over 700. The increase in participation has been a real source of pride for Rick and is a testament to the hard work and effort that he and his staff have put in.
The challenge for Rick now is convincing those parents who provide their kids with a “sack lunch” that CUSD’s lunch is, ultimately, better value.
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