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Why hiring a top chef at Lodi Unified School District would be money well spent

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Posted: Saturday, April 14, 2012 12:00 am

I would like to respond to the recent Lodi News-Sentinel editorial asking if Lodi Unified should hire an executive chef to lead the healthy food campaign.

This editorial opened a Pandora's box of hot topics for me that I guess I have been sitting on for quite some time. I suspect things really started brewing when my 7-year-old son started public school and I was faced with the question of whether to pack a lunch or have him eat in the school cafeteria.

As a working mother, the cafeteria was a much easier option and probably would have been an effortless sell. All I really needed to do was read the monthly elementary menu (at www.lodiusd.net) and see that Monday was popcorn chicken, Tuesday was cheese pizza, Wednesday was hamburgers (pink slime aside), Thursday was chicken nuggets and Friday offered "fish treasures" or pizza again. Of course, there is the "healthy self-serve garden bar" option for him, but I am fully aware of his inherent desire to fill his plate with lettuce, carrot sticks and canned peaches.

But, alas, having made a pledge to myself at his birth to limit his exposure to chicken nuggets, and not being a fan of commercial ground beef myself, I came to realize I was faced with filling up that lunchbox every morning.

I am very aware of how poorly our younger generations eat and am faced with it every day as a chef instructor and culinary educator. I have students who want to become chefs who have never tasted vegetables such as asparagus, cauliflower, eggplant, sweet potatoes or spinach. Our food system is set up in such a way that it makes it so much easier and more affordable to buy fast food dollar menu items and eat highly processed convenience foods than to buy fresh produce.

I am also a food science graduate from UC Davis and spent several years in the commercial food industry trying to figure out how to make it faster and cheaper and how to sell more units. I have worked to formulate food items to meet the government mandated National School Lunch Program, which deserves its own exposé.

So back to the question at hand: "Should Lodi Unified hire an executive chef to lead the healthy food campaign?" I absolutely agree that more education is needed within our school lunch program for both the student consumer and the program employees.

Executive chef Jamie Oliver's television show "Food Revolution" brought the issue of U.S. school lunches into our living rooms, and while it could be labeled as "edu-tainment," it clearly made the point of how poorly our students are eating and the challenge involved in changing the status quo.

Is this the same outcome we are expecting of Lodi Unified Director of Food Services Warren Sun's proposal to hire an executive chef?

Sun's vision for the executive chef to "lead the next phase," as presented in your editorial, seemed somewhat rosy and oversimplified in light of the governmental mire that is the National School Lunch Program, the budgetary restrictions, and the hard mindset of school administrators. Oh and don't forget the approximate 27,000 Lodi school students this chef will be challenged with educating and feeding in the cafeteria every day.

While I don't have hard numbers, I'm sure that is more lunches than Tavern on the Green made in their last year of business before they filed for bankruptcy, and not a fair comparison for the paper to make of the expectations of the executive chef position, in my opinion.

Your article seems to stress the "big bucks" it would cost for an executive chef, but if you break it down, it equates to $4.89 per student per year ($132,000/27,000), which is less than the cost of a cheeseburger meal. This is money, in my opinion, that would be well spent if the chef would be allowed to do the job of educating our students on where there food comes from, what real, natural food tastes like, and how to make smarter, healthier food choices — tools that are greatly needed and can be passed along to the next generation of children.

Nancy Rostomily is a culinary arts/chef instructor at the Art Institute of California, Sacramento. She holds an master of business administration, a bachelor of science in food science, and is a graduate from the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone with a baking and pastry certificate. She resides in Lodi and is a former food columnist for the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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