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MUSD food among nations best
Central Valley Harvest Bake makes final 3 of First Ladys contest
Manteca Unified School District Director of Nutritional Services Patty Page, left, looked over selections of student helpers Audrey Koreski, center, and Marisa Boyd during a visit to the Joshua Cowell School cafeteria in February. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Recipe for Central Valley Harvest Bake

Serves six people
• 1/2 TBSP of Quinoa, red Cooked
• 1 1/4 Lbs of Butternut Squash, Fresh raw cubed
• 2 1/2 TBSP of Onion, yellow raw diced
• 1 1/2 TBSP of Red Bell Pepper, chopped
• 1 3/4 tsp of Jalapeno Pepper Fresh
• 5 TBSP of Applesauce, canned USDA
• 5 TBSP of Black Beans, canned drained
• 3 1/2 tsp of Oregano, Fresh
• 1/8 tsp of Salt, Kosher
• 1/2 cup of Granola, low Fat
• 1 3/4 tsp of Olive Oil, extra virgin

1. Oven roast vegetables – Cut red pepper into quarters and remove seeds; cut jalapeno pepper in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Place butternut squash, red pepper and jalapeno pepper in mixing bowl and toss with 2 Tbsp olive oil.  Place pan liner on a sheet pan and spread vegetables onto pan.  Roast in a 350-degree oven until tender (approximately 20 minutes.)  Dice onion, toss with 1 tsp olive oil and place in a separate pan (with pan liner) to roast in a 350 degree oven until tender (about 10 minutes.)  The onions are roasted separately because they brown very quickly and it is important that they do not darken too much.

2. While vegetables are roasting, prepare quinoa according to package directions. 
3. In large bowl, combine applesauce, black beans, cooked red quinoa, oregano and salt.

4. When vegetables are tender, take out of oven, let cool slightly. Finely chop the jalapeno pepper and dice the red bell pepper.

5. Add vegetables to large bowl with all of the other ingredients and lightly toss.

6. For 50 servings, place mixture in a full size hotel pan (12x20 in); For 6 servings, place in a 6x6 baking dish, coat with non-stick cooking spray and spread evenly, pressing the top gently to pack vegetable mixture.

7. Sprinkle granola evenly over the top of the vegetable mixture.

 8. For 50 Servings: Bake in 350-degree oven for 25 - 30 minutes or until granola is lightly browned. For 6 servings: Bake in 350-degree oven for approximately 20 minutes or until granola is lightly browned.

 9. Serve in ½ cup servings

Just how tasty and nutritious is the food served to Manteca Unified students?

Good enough to have one of the unique dishes they serve judged among the six best in the United States for school cafeterias.

And just how efficient is Manteca Unified nutritional services?

Good enough that they are complying with a mandate put in place to raise meal prices next school year out of the federal government’s concern that free meal funding for needy kids are subsidizing the meals of those who can afford it which isn’t the case in Manteca Unified.

And the reason why Manteca Unified - more so than the vast majority of school cafeterias in the country - is generating enough money from kids who don’t qualify for free or reduced meals is due to creations such as the Central Valley Harvest Bake recipe that won first place nationally in the vegetable category. The food is so tasty that Manteca Unified has a higher than normal percentage of students who actually elect to eat in the school cafeteria therefore generating sufficient revenue to keep the nutritional services in the black without dipping into federal funds earmarked for free or reduced meals to cover the cost of feeding non-qualifying students.

“We’re definitely excited,” said Patty Page, Manteca Unified Director of Nutritional Services said of being among the finalists in First Lady Michelle Obama’s Recipes for Healthy Kids competition. “It was an honor to be chosen as a semi-finalist. This takes it to a whole new level.”

The Joshua Cowell School cafeteria staff team that came up with the recipe in partnership with Modesto chef Bryan Ehrenholm and Sierra High culinary student Cameron Hutchinson who graduated last month will now travel to Texas on July 25 to prepare their dish for final judging by the White House chef at the American Culinary Academy in Texas. The first winner in each of the three categories will be in Texas. The grand prize winner will receive $3,000.

The Cowell School entry is in the vegetable category and is designed as a side dish designed for serving with a number of entrees such as grilled chicken and roasted turkey. It employs valley grown butternut squash, jalapeño and red peppers, black beans, red quinoa, plus granola.  The Central Valley Harvest Bake has 125 calories per half cup serving with 16 percent of the calories from fat, 3 percent from saturated fat, and 16 percent from sugar.

Good nutrition reflected in classroom performance

And like all new creations considered for adding to the school menu, it was taste tested first by students.

Manteca Unified School District Superintendent Jason Messer lauded the success of nutritional services adding they are a crucial part of the education process.

Page noted that students that are not hungry and benefit from good nutrition behave better in class, pay more attention, and have an easier time grasping school work.

“Our nutritional staff consists of mothers, grandmothers, fathers, and grandfathers,” Page said. “They really, really do care about the students.”

And since students are the ultimate consumers they help shape the menu through taste tests that also help introduce young palates to new and healthier food choices. It is reflected in the 22,000-plus luncheons served on a typical school day. Students - educated about nutrition, introduced to new vegetables and fruits and a variety of choices - often gravitate to the healthiest items offered on the daily menu.

An example is jicama, a vegetable you’d be hard pressed to find on school lunch menus anywhere let alone 20 years ago. The jicama is a crisp, sweet, and edible root that resembles a turnip. Many Hispanic students were already used to it. By offering it up first in taste tests and serving it with chili and lime it has become one of the more popular items.

Page said different grains and other vegetables and fruits that have a higher nutritional value and often better tasting are introduced through various taste tests as part of new dishes.

The result is a school lunch program that doesn’t have to scramble to play catch up with the growing demand for improved food fare to be served in public schools. In many ways, as Messer pointed out, Manteca Unified nutritional services are on the cutting edge of the healthier school lunch movement.

Corn syrup dropped from flavored milk

Los Angeles Unified this week banned flavored chocolate and strawberry milk due to the sugar content even though some studies show milk consumption drops when flavored milk isn’t offered.

Messer noted Page approached the issue a bit differently. She has just negotiated a contract with a vendor who will not use corn syrup to sweeten the milk effectively reducing it sugar content while assuring students will still get needed calcium.

As far as the federal requirement to increase lunch prices next school year, Page said it its the result of a 2010 federal law. Audits of school districts showed many used money obtained from the federal government for free and reduced meals to help subsidize to a degree meals for students who have to pay full price.

Due in part to the popularity of school lunch with Manteca Unified students, the district hasn’t fallen into that trap and as such has no need to raise prices to cover costs. But since they receive federal money for the free and reduced program they have no choice but to follow the requirement and raise meal prices.

Page said the nutritional services staff has accomplished the ability to keep costs down by actually not skimping on quality ingredients.  As such it is reflected in the taste of food which in turn prompts more students to opt to eat at the cafeteria which ends up generating more money.