School officials in Mountain View have been pushing for what they call "21st century learning" in the classroom for years. But back in the kitchens, every elementary and middle school in the city is stuck in the 20th century, with aging equipment used to cook up food that fewer and fewer kids are finding palatable.
But after a year of big changes and upgrades to its school lunch program, the Mountain View Whisman School District appears to be reversing that negative trend, introducing new meals and committing $300,000 in additional funds to update kitchen equipment so kids can look forward to tastier lunches when they head to the cafeteria.
A report by Lunch Lessons LLC last year found the district's child nutrition department was losing as much as $144,000 a year due to dwindling student participation in the school lunch program, and recommended a sizable revamp to the district's kitchen facilities and a fresh new menu. That's when the district brought in a new child nutrition director, Juan Cordon, who had spent more than a decade running the school food program at Santa Clara Unified.
At the May 7 school board meeting, Cordon explained that he was met with a swath of problems when he joined the district in July. The kitchens were in bad shape, the "food philosophy" of the district was outdated, employees were used to doing things he felt weren't safe or proper, and the whole department needed to be restructured. Cordon said he refused to serve food that had been in the district's inventory for years, opting instead to throw it away.
And while some quick-fixes have been made, most of the cooking facilities are still outdated by over 25 years, he said, and that using the kitchens to produce food for kids was a lot like using an old-style classroom with chalk boards to teach it can be done, but it's very much out of date.
"It's basically like I've been put in a diner from the 1970s and (was told), 'make this a fine dining restaurant.' I can make the food, but there's better ways," Cordon said.
Key to Cordon's update to the board was what he called a "big ask" in the form of $300,000 in additional funds. The money would go toward replacing outdated equipment at all the schools, including old ovens that dried out the entrees. None of the new equipment is a luxury item, he said, and are needed to improve the quality of food to a reasonable level.
Other problems include the Graham kitchen facility, which has a two-tub sink instead of a three-tub sink which falls short of standards specified in the California Health and Safety Code.
"It's my responsibility to at least come to you and say, 'I need equipment,'" Cordon told the board.
The $300,000 would be on top of $600,000 in equipment replaced in the first year, which pushed expenses about $150,000 above revenues for the child nutrition department this year. Cordon said he hoped the bond money from Measure G would eventually help to pay for kitchen improvements in the long term.
The board ultimately decided, in a 4-1 straw-vote, in favor of the additional funding, with board president Chris Chiang standing firmly behind Cordon's efforts and calling the money a "wonderful" investment in the district.
"There's not a single person who is making a bigger difference in the long-term well-being of our kids than what you are doing," Chiang said.
Board member Steve Nelson, on the other hand, voted no after expressing concerns that there was no long-term plan on investments in child nutrition department improvements.
New food wins fans
Even with the preliminary fixes and new menus, the district has seen modest but solid 1-to-2 percent gains each month in lunch participation across the schools, with a relatively significant increase in breakfast meals served.
"I can tell you that I know the kids are eating better (now) than they have in previous years," Cordon told the board.
New meals on the lunch menu include salads with Brussels sprouts and kale topped with the district's own vinaigrette, vegetable stew with polenta and stuffed peppers with quinoa. The stuffed peppers weren't a hit with every student, Cordon said, but a lot of students tried it and were exposed to new types of food.
Crittenden Principal Geoff Chang said Cordon and the new district chef, Bob Mencimer, have both been doing "wonders" for the school food, finding more efficient ways to feed hundreds of students with new dishes like beef stroganoff, chicken enchilada soup and even El Salvadoran pupusas.
"Everything is delivered fresh and prepared from scratch," Chang said.
Margaret Poor, a parent of Crittenden and Landels Elementary students, said there's already been a "huge" change in the cafeteria food operations since the beginning of the school year, with kids eating steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast and stuffed bell peppers for lunch. Poor said she's decided to jump on-board and start eating in the cafeteria as well, and became a big fan of the ratatouille.
Getting kids to eat school lunch requires a two-pronged approach, Cordon said. While district cooking staff can serve up food that taste great, they still have to advertise and present the food in a way that's going to get kids to give it a try. He said schools could be producing the same kinds of salads that are served in Google's dining facilities, but he said the tech giant values a good presentation that makes the food appealing.
"We should be using that same philosophy," Cordon said.