Ojai School Lunch Confidential 2017-2018 number 1

In School Lunch Confidential by Helen Petroff

Hello and welcome back to School Lunch Confidential! As has happened for the past couple of years, I have realized that the first few months of the new school year is an incredibly busy time. What with back to school stuff, back to work stuff and in general trying to catch up after being slothful and relaxed over the summer, by the time I get my first blog of the academic year together, it is already the holidays! I did manage to eat lunch at my local elementary school, Topa Topa, on September 21st.  I checked out the new OUSD menu app to see what was on offer first. This was very easy to use! You can download it from the app store by searching “My School Menus.” It even turned out to be accurate, which has been an issue with previous analog versions of the school menu. The nutrition services staff at Topa Topa were very apologetic about not having a kitchen that day.  Apparently, as I am sure many of my readers have experienced at some point in their lives, the contractors who were supposed to have finished the kitchen several weeks back were behind schedule for some reason.  That day, Topa Topa was getting their main entre from the OUSD central kitchen at Meiners Oaks. This meant that the entire process of plating up and serving the lunch occurred outside on tables, giving the experience the air of a family barbeque. The Chicken Alfredo was prepackaged in foil trays which were delivered in a refrigerator-sized warming oven.  This made them rather uncomfortably hot to handle however, so the staff cleverly used the nice compostable trays as a sort of trivet.  There were also fresh snap peas and broccoli florets, tangerines (pretty sure about that, although I still have trouble telling the difference between tangerines and oranges) and the usual packaged whole grain cookie/cracker accompaniment. I quite liked the Chicken Alfredo. It had the usual weirdly gritty whole grain pasta (which I am slowly getting used to), visibly roasted bits of chicken and a nice white sauce binder. Had there been salt available, I would have probably added some.  The snap pea and broccoli crudité accompaniment was fine, I dipped them in a puzzlingly fat free buttermilk dressing that was available in tiny plastic packets. My tangerine was good too (we are so lucky in Ojai to have yummy citrus available on demand!) With the last swigs of my milk, I had a few of the bunny graham crackers, mainly because they reminded me of my cats. On that day, the main thing I noticed was the difficulty that the noon supervisors where having in getting the kids to actually sit down and eat their lunch.  Many of the kids did not appear to be that hungry and were more interested in tormenting their classmates than in eating food.  From what I could gather from the snippets of conversation I overheard, the issue was not so much that the lunch was not appealing, but rather that they had other priorities for their break from sitting quietly in class. I was back at Topa Topa on November 27th. The new kitchen looks great! The nutrition services staff seemed a lot happier to back indoors in their own space.  On the menu was fried chicken or bean and cheese burrito. I opted for the chicken.  This turned out to be a good move because once I was outside I noticed that the burritos were of the pre-packaged frozen-in-a-bag-definitely-not-homemade variety which I believe the district is trying to move away from. The scoop of mashed potatoes and cold olive-drab canned green beans were in no way stellar, but I liked the fact that they at least made sense as an accompaniment to the chicken.  The potatoes were actually kind of tasty and easy to eat with my spork.  Staff apologized about the beans: they were waiting on a delivery of carrots and had to punt.  Maybe next time they could be warmed up.  There was also an appropriately sized sweet and crunchy apple and some Cheez-Its (which were presumably substituting for the advertised dinner roll?) My drumstick tasted just like what I would expect to get at Kentucky Fried Chicken.  I should disclose that I have a childhood emotional connection to KFC from when my mom would go off on business trips and my dad and I would eat fried chicken and coleslaw in front of the TV, something that was considered rather boorish behavior under normal circumstances. So, even though it was kind of greasy, I liked the chicken a lot. The kids seemed to like it too. All the food waste that I saw in the trash cans showed gnaw-marks on both the drumsticks and the apples. I hope that with their shiny new kitchen, Topa Topa nutrition services feels empowered to enter into a conversation with their customers, the students, to generate enthusiasm for actually eating the school lunch.  Perhaps the noon supervisors, who are on the front lines of trying to get the food physically into the children, can be brought in as advisors.  In any case, kudos to those who show up every day at our local schools to fight the good fight of trying to provide a tasty, nutritious and popular lunch for our kids. Until next time… Off the record and uncensored, Helen Petroff