Salad bars and salmon burgers: Solana Beach transforms school lunch

It’s lunchtime at Solana Ranch Elementary School in Carmel Valley and students are hitting the salad bar before picking up a yogurt parfait with strawberries and granola. That’s right: the school has a salad bar and kids are willingly eating their veggies.

Solana Beach School District’s school lunch participation has jumped 14 percent since the district transformed its lunch program, implementing 30 fresh new recipes with a renewed focus on healthy, good-for-you food that kids will actually eat and enjoy. The highest increase was seen at Solana Highlands Elementary School with a 28 percent jump in participation.

“We took it from ‘heat and serve’ to a ‘speed-scratch kitchen,’” said Siri Pearlman, district director of child nutrition. (Solana Santa Fe Elementary School in Rancho Santa Fe is in the Solana Beach School District.)

By “speed scratch” she means instead of heating up a frozen burrito, district kitchens are rolling and stuffing the burritos by hand on site.

Pearlman’s goal with revamping the meal program involved using quality, fresh food to produce nourishing, tasteful and appealing meals for students. The changes continue to follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s requirements and dietary guidelines.

The new menu includes a variety of tasty and unique options such as grilled salmon burgers with roasted potatoes or a rainbow salad with farm fresh veggies topped with sliced chicken breast. The popular orange chicken dish is served with brown rice tossed with fresh vegetables and seasoning, and the turkey hot dog comes with sweet potato fries.

Solana Ranch was the pilot school for the new program beginning in November of 2015 before it rolled out to the rest of the district in January 2016.

“Not only is the food healthy but it tastes good too,” said Principal Jerry Jones, who admits to having tried nearly everything on the menu.

With the pilot program, students tested the meals and offered their reviews. The younger students were given stickers to reflect their happiness with the dishes. Little tweaks were made to make meals more acceptable, what the kids would actually eat.

For example, while kids pulled the basil out of their Caprese paninis, they didn’t seem to mind the basil if it was chopped and mixed-in with their pasta Caprese with tomatoes and mozzarella.

One student review of the pasta read: “I cannot stop eating! I like that it has cheese because the cheese doesn’t make it bland. This has a good savory taste. Keep it up!”

Even as the pilot has ended, the district still wants to know what kids are thinking about the food.

“Siri does a great job with asking the kids for their feedback,” Jones said.

For months, Solana Ranch students were asking repeatedly for the nachos to come back on the menu and Jones had to begrudgingly tell them it wasn’t an option as it didn’t meet the nutritional standards.

Pearlman listened to the kids (students at Skyline Elementary School had also presented a nacho petition) and found a way for the district to do nachos but in a healthier way. Instead of using the processed, canned nacho cheese that you would find at a ballpark she found a real California-based cheese without preservatives that they could use with housemade pico de gallo and chips.

When Jones informed the students a few weeks ago that the nachos were back, they were so excited that they erupted in chants and cheers.

“The kids felt like they gave input and there was a response,” said Solana Beach School District Superintendent Terry Decker. “They felt ownership. Through rating the food and giving feedback, they’re not just being served, they’re a part of the process.”

Solana Beach School District operates a different model with its lunch program — it has no central kitchen and each site has its own facility.

“The feeling here is very home style. We prep it here and serve it fresh and hot to the kids,” Pearlman said.

Solana Ranch, which opened in 2014, has the newest kitchen in the district — it is spacious with two walk-in refrigerators and plenty of storage. As other facilities around the district are smaller, Measure JJ funding will help make upgrades to kitchens at Skyline, Solana Vista and Solana Highlands.

The newer kitchens will move away from the window serving model and be more open.

Currently at one of four lunch times at Solana Ranch, students first pick up their milk or juice and then visit the salad bar to load plates with fruit or vegetables before making their choice of entrée at the window.

The salad bar features salad mix and a variety of veggies, as well as specialty salads like corn relish, sesame broccoli, jicama and cucumber salad.

Pearlman said every site has their favorites. “The cucumber goes over very big here at Solana Ranch; at Vista, jicama is big,” she said.

The corn relish salad is one of Superintendent Decker’s favorites because it’s an example of staff thinking creatively to take a commodity food and prepare it in a way that is tastier. Instead of heating up canned corn, Solana Beach uses the canned corn chilled and tosses it with chopped veggies and beans.

“In those ways, we’ve turned the tables on school lunches,” Decker said.

As the quality of the product has improved, labor and food costs have also risen. At the May 18 board meeting, the board will consider raising the price of school lunches from $3.75 to $4.50 per meal. The last time the district increased prices was in the 2013-14 school year from $3.25 to $3.75. By comparison at neighboring Del Mar Union School District, which uses an outside lunch provider, Choicelunch, the cost of lunches are $5.50 to $6.

Currently Solana Beach’s program is running at a deficit and being picked up by the general fund.

Decker told the board at the April 20 board meeting that they want to be careful about how they do price increases.

“We’ve looked at different levels of increase. A proposed increase of 75 cents would bring in around $124,000 a year additional which would help offset that general fund piece that’s a deficit right now,” Decker said. “We want to be careful about how much we increase because for one thing it has a significant impact on our families but also we don’t want to go so high that we roll back on sales.”

Decker said the intent of the lunch program is not to be a profit-making venture, they just would like it to get to even.

“I believe it’s really important that we don’t run a profit on our lunches and that we just provide the best food possible at the lowest price possible,” Solana Beach School District board member Julie Union said.

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