As head of the Food Services Department at Lodi Unified School District, Nancy Rostomily, a trained chef, is tasked with balancing business and creating delicious recipes for school cafeterias.

With new trends toward healthier, freshly cooked food in schools, Rostomily and Lodi Unified cooks are constantly trying new ways to prepare nutritious food kids will be willing to eat.

They are also challenged with keeping students interested in eating at the cafeteria, as well as encouraging them to make healthy choices by themselves.

“We can make a difference in educating students about what is healthy and how to eat healthy, but we can’t do it (all) ourselves. It has to start at home,” Rostomily said. “I’m hoping we can make a little bit of difference by showing them that (healthy food) can taste good.”

The biggest change in the past five years has been what goes on the menu, in part because of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. The act requires schools to increase the amount of whole grains, fruits and vegetables that they serve and reduce levels of sodium, trans fats and saturated fats.

A look at school breakfast menus now shows items such as soy butter and jelly sandwiches, and whole-wheat blueberry muffins, which are are low in sugar and baked fresh at individual school sites. The muffin recipe, among several other varieties such as apple oat muffins and autumn spice muffins, was developed by Rostomily herself.

Rostomily has brought gradual change to Lodi Unified, shifting preparation from heat-and-serve meals to making fresh, nutritious recipes from scratch.

The district has joined in statewide efforts to promote a healthy shift on a larger scale, sharing recipes with districts throughout California and bringing local produce into both recipes and the classroom.

Rostomily has a long history of work in the food industry, from quality control and product development to owning her own business. She has also been a culinary instructor for San Joaquin Delta College and the Art Institute of California, Sacramento.

“Not many districts have people with a culinary background,” she said. “School districts, parents and the community are starting to realize the importance of hiring a chef who knows flavor profiles, who is able to teach staff to cook from scratch, and to prepare recipes that students will want to eat based on regulations and limited resources.”

Rostomily said that the district cooks one-third of their offerings from scratch, with staff members creating new lunch recipes such as black bean burgers and bean-and-cheese enchiladas. Orange chicken is one of the favorites across all grade levels, she said.

This year, the state of California named Lodi Unified’s Food Services Department as a Culinary Center. This means they are one of a few select districts tasked with creating recipes from scratch for other districts to use, making sure they meet nutrition and health standards. The district will test the recipes to see whether they are well-liked at Lodi schools before sharing them for use elsewhere.

“Next week we’re testing a low-calorie double chocolate chip muffin,” Rostomily said.

To test new menu items, Rostomily said, one of the cafeterias will serve it and ask students to fill out surveys.

Beyond the realm of recipes, Lodi Unified food services has worked closely with facilities and planning to update the look and flow of several school cafeterias.

Lodi High School received a full makeover over the summer, with new paint and decor, added warmers and several lines where students can grab their food and go. A new salad bar features green leaf lettuce, carrots, beans, peas, and other toppings to add to their salads.

During lunch, approximately 1,000 to 1,200 students at the school must be served within six to eight minutes, Rostomily said.

Several other schools are gradually seeing new equipment and upgrades as the district produces more freshly made food. Tokay High School’s snack bar area was improved over the summer, with more lines where students can choose the same foods offered the cafeteria, but in the outside quad area.

In the future, Rostomily hopes to work with agriculture teachers at the local schools to bring fresh fruits and vegetables directly from school farms to the cafeterias. Through the farm-to-table program, Lodi schools already use locally sourced produce that comes from within 100 miles of the district.

Another new program Rostomily and the district will focus on in the coming year is California Thursdays. Lodi Unified will be one of 14 districts launching this new program, which offers one meal a month made with fresh, California-grown ingredients. Rostomily aims to offer this program once a week by next school year.

Rostomily and her staff work hard throughout the year to ensure students eat healthy meals during school and over the summer — even if it means serving the community while others are on vacation or modifying a pizza recipe to lower fat and sodium and include whole grains.

“It’s never boring. Every day is a new, fast-paced and exciting day, and another chance to make a difference,” she said.

Contact reporter Christina Cornejo at christinac@lodinews.com.

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