Most people don’t remember school cafeteria food fondly. Soggy tater tots, rubberized meat products and bland vegetables often come to mind.
The same cannot be said for the Turlock Unified School District and its RealFresh nutrition program, which features grab n’ go fruit stands, free-range chicken, all-natural grass-fed beef, and freshly made foods like tacos and burritos.
Last week at the Palm Springs Convention Center, TUSD Director of Child Nutrition Scott Soiseth was recognized with the Food for California Kids 2013 Innovation Award. The award is presented by the Center for Ecoliteracy to recognize successful and engaging food programs in California schools.
The RealFresh idea was launched in 2004. A short time later a district-wide student survey was conducted which revealed a common thread – students wanted fresh food.
Soiseth took the word fresh to heart and made it the driving force behind his team’s efforts to incorporate local, fresh food.
But changing the food, Soiseth realized, was only half the job. His team also had to change students’ perceptions. TUSD hired a marketing firm, which helped develop the new “RealFresh” campaign. Soon “RealFresh” could be found on cafeteria posters, fruit stands, uniforms and menus.
Since the implementation of the campaign and new food strategy, TUSD has increased student participation in school meals by 300 percent. TUSD Child Nutrition now serves two million meals annually and serves 14,000 students a day with a staff of 80 workers. Perhaps even more impressive is that, since 2004, prices per meal have remained low at $1.75 for elementary students and $2.50 for high school students – thanks largely to the increased number of students who eat school lunch as opposed to bringing their lunch.
“It was a very nice surprise to gain the recognition, especially with the Under Secretary there. It’s a testament to all the hard work that all the staff have put into making RealFresh work,” said Soiseth.
As part of the RealFresh idea, TUSD foods have no-hormones, no trans-fats, cheese products include no preservatives and many bread products are whole-wheat.
“When schools offer California children healthy food grown in California, we help them to learn and grow,” said Executive Director and Cofounder of the Center for Ecoliteracy Zenobia Barlow. “At the same time we help to revitalize our state’s economy, reactive regional food systems, and create living wage jobs- frequently for people who reflect the diversity of our student populations- while preserving precious resources of land and water.”