Monterey County is known for its wine and lettuce, but now, among school districts in California and beyond, it’s also slated to be known by recipes developed in its school cafeterias.
The Gonzales Unified School District received an $8,500 grant and Monterey Peninsula Unified School District received one for $24,000 in what’s called the Taste of California Standardized Recipe Challenge. The money comes from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which distributed $4.1 million to state agencies, including the California Department of Education, as part of the National School Lunch Program for the 2021-2022 school year.
Misha James, director of nutrition services at MPUSD, says creating these recipes will help them to improve the perception people have about the food served in school cafeterias. “The goal of the grant is to increase the quality of and quantity of the recipes that are available through the USDA standardized website,” James says.
The CDE allocated $232,000 among 20 school districts to develop recipes using local products and flavors, showcasing local cuisine and the cuisine of different ethnic groups; four “ambassador districts,” so-called because they have been part of the program before, obtained $24,000 grants and 16 received $8,500. Grapes, cauliflower, dates, avocados and almonds are some of the ingredients directors of nutrition could choose to use in their recipes. One of the goals is to use as few processed components as possible.
Gonzales has a large Latino population and Alvin Vitug, director of nutrition at GUSD, proposed a cilantro and lime cauliflower rice. Vitug prefers to incorporate plant-based dishes into the menu. He chose the cilantro and lime cauliflower rice for two reasons, one of them being the aforementioned Latino population. Vitug, who is Filipino, eats a lot of rice and uses cauliflower as a substitute about 25 percent of the time when he cooks at home.
He wants to offer more playful options for students. “They’ll have a base of cauliflower rice, or paired up with some carnitas or beans and then make basically a burrito bowl,” he says, “I want to make a recipe unique to Gonzales.”
Vitug doesn’t know yet which spices he will incorporate as he refines the recipe, but he hopes students of different ages weigh in and help contribute to finding the right spice blend. Tasting panels (including students) are a crucial part of the recipe development grants, as culinary staff invite the community to participate.
MPUSD, meanwhile, submitted a fried chicken and kimchi sandwich.
“Students love chicken sandwiches, right? And they love spicy,” James says. They chose cabbage because it’s a highly nutritious vegetable that is not often highlighted on school menus. And most people think of coleslaw when they want to fix cabbage. MPUSD will develop eight recipes for the challenge.
Ambassadors from the Taste of California program will support districts with technical assistance, training and recipe standardization. Currently, MPUSD has 10 recipes in CDE’s California Culinary Centers Standardized Recipes, available online. Those include a buffalo chicken wrap, veggie enchiladas and ham fried rice.
While looking for the perfect recipe, the directors will get students and the community involved in the tasting process until the recipe gets an 85-percent approval rating. Besides using traditional tasting methods – people trying samples – districts will also use social media platforms, facilitate taste testing off campus, hold cooking demonstrations and provide nutrition education activities online and in person.
Ultimately, the cooking teams will create formalized recipes that can be replicated. The entire process is expected to take about a year-and-a-half, as they perfect recipes then scale them up from tasting groups of 10 to serving sizes of at least 100.
All of the participating districts will work together, and their final recipes will be part of a cookbook and will be available at California Culinary Centers Standardized Recipes website.
The grant process was competitive, with more than 40 applicants. Vitug is already thinking about the potential for a second grant, for a guacamole-centric recipe.