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Should the Lodi Unified School District hire an executive chef to lead the healthy food campaign?

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Posted: Saturday, March 31, 2012 12:00 am

The Lodi Unified School District is still writhing through an ugly budget mess. So what's this about spending $132,000 on an executive chef? Isn't that enough to make you choke?

We thought Lodi Unified was running school cafeterias, not Taverns on the Green.

The proposal came from Warren Sun, Lodi Unified's director of food services. Sun gave trustees an update on food services this week, with some impressive accomplishments: Lodi Unified serves about 10,000 breakfasts and 20,000 lunches each day, he reported. In a few months, there will be a pilot program testing a late afternoon supper for students at selected afterschool sites, too.

There's a push toward fresher, healthier food, he noted, with more salad bars and fewer burgers and fries. More than 50 percent of the fresh fruits served are now local and organic.

Over 90 percent of food services staff are certified food handlers, Mr. Sun said.

So Lodi Unified's food services is pushing more greens and fewer greasies.

Even so: Why do we need an executive chef?

We had a good conversation with Sun, who holds both bachelor's and master's degrees in food science from Fresno State. Even from a short conversation, it was clear he is not a guy who just wants to push out tons of tamale pie and go home for the day.

During his college days, he worked as a server in a Chinese restaurant in Fresno. That taught him something, he said, about customer service. Later, he had a choice to work in food service for a hospital or a school district.

"I thought about providing food in a hospital, where people are being treated for illness, or working in a school, and trying to provide meals that might help avoid illness," he said. "I decided to go for the school."

The district now is foraging through local growers for healthful edibles, he said. In the last couple of weeks, he said students enjoyed kiwis, heirloom tomatoes and cherry tomatos from local farms. Some of these foods can be expensive, he said, and out of range of many district families.

But many of the major markets only buy big fruits and veggies. For the children of Lodi Unified, small is better, and growers are often willing to part with the undersized specimens for pennies on the dollar.

Sun wants students to avoid the ravages of childhood obesity, which often morph into adult-onset diabetes and heart disease.

And he feels it is not enough to offer them more heathful choices. He wants to provide education, so students carry the lessons of good nutrition forward during their lives.

"We are an educational community, so why not educate about nutrition?," he asked.

Sun, it seems, is at the edge of a revolution toward lower-fat, plant-based diet planning. It is quietly seeping into grocery stores and even fast food outlets across America. McDonald's now offers oatmeal and three kinds of salads along with Big Macs and those addictive fries.

And what was the summation of esteemed author and foodie Michael Pollan? "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

So things are changing (not that we don't enjoy our occasional ribeye; we do) and that's probably for the best.

Sun's vision is for the executive chef to lead the next phase of this movement. He or she would expand the network of local food sources. They'd design menus that are even more tasty and nutritious. Moreover, they'd act as a sort of health-wise guru to the district's cafeteria staff. He or she might also design outreach programs for the district, helping nourish not just students, but entire families though better meal planning.

Here's a kicker: The money to pay Lodi Unified's top chef would come largely from federal, not state, dollars.

"The money, we believe, would be there. We could get it. So why shouldn't we go after it and help improve our program?" Mr. Sun asked.

Well, that doesn't seem like an unreasonable question. We're impressed with Mr. Sun and glad he's leading our children — and maybe all of us — to a healthier future. He's well-informed and well-intentioned.

Still, with the fiscal storm clouds swirling, should trustees spend big bucks on a top chef?

Truthfully, we're still chewing that one over.

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