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Farm-To-School Lunches in Davis

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(Davis, CA)
Thursday, September 23, 2010

Elaine Corn: Georgeanne Brennan's thick hair is tucked under a net. She roams the Davis school district's Central Kitchen with a plastic spoon. Several dishes destined for a dozen lunchrooms are ingenious combinations of US commodities and local vegetables.

Georgeanne Brennan: Ummm…pasta salad. Commodity elbow macaroni. Fresh zucchini, raw. Fresh pattypan, red peppers, extra virgin olive oil, feta cheese.

Commodity feta cheese? Brennan peers through her big eyeglasses.
Brennan: It's a feta cheese crumble in a 5-pound bag, works for me.
EC: Brennan is the award-winning author of more than 30 cookbooks. She's here to take the institution out of institutional cooking.
Brennan: I come in essentially as a home cook. The whole idea is to prepare flavorful food that kids will like to eat. 
EC: The surprise is what kids like. Zucchini? Brennan keeps it simple -- like this side dish just out of the oven.
Brennan: This is a patty pan and zucchini that's been seasoned with salt and pepper and a little bit of pa  prika and roasted in the oven.
EC: Brennan teaches cooking at her farmhouse in Winters and also in the south of France. Her role here is also to teach, but this lunch crew is not beginners.
Brennan: These are really creative people in here. They don't need somebody like me coming in saying now do this and now do that. The know how to cook, they know how to serve, they know how to chop.
EC: Brennan's first class several years back was an olive-oil tasting. Another class took butternut squash through the effects of steaming, baking, and turning it into soup.
Brennan: After every cooking class, we serve it, beautifully present it. We all sit around a large oval table and share our food    and talk about it and think about how it might work for them.
EC: What works follows a priority to use local fruits and vegetables. "Local" means within a 300-mile radius of Davis. Today's teriyaki chicken goes with Salinas broccoli over organic rice grown 20 miles away. It wasn't always so culinarily utopian here. Ann Evans, a former Davis mayor, was once a Davis school parent. She wasn't ready for a potluck where one mom showed up with Lunchables.
Ann Evans: Not only is that food of minimal to no nutritional value, but the waste was unbelievable.
EC: Ten years ago, Evans and Brennan joined with parents, businesses and school officials to form Farm to School, the booster club for everything food in the Davis school system. Davis became the first city in the country to pay for local produce for school lunch -- and for Brennan's expertise -- with a parcel tax. Instead of adding kitchens to schools that didn't have them, the booster club backed this $1.4 million Central Kitchen.
A shrink-wrap machine seals containers. Rotating ovens hold 36 pans at a time. Rafaelita Curva is Student Nutrition Services director at the Central Kitchen. Curva agrees with the booster club's philosophy of waiting for students to like what's good for them.
Rafaelita Curva: Just because a food is not particularly liked by students on their first try, that we stop serving it. No.
EC: Curva draws on Brennan to work the lunchrooms with student taste tests.
Brennan: That's the best time to get them, when they're waiting in line. They're starving to death and they'll try anything.
EC: Yes, Brennan says, kids eat beets.
Brennan: And they were Chiogga striped beets. We had volunteers offering little samples. And they would have this, OOOOH, that's good.
EC: Georgeanne Brennan says any school district can have a Central Kitchen like this one in Davis. All you need for great school lunch is a booster club that loves food as much as football.
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