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Manteca Unified students vote with their stomachs
A Lincoln Elementary School student picks fruit and veggies for her lunch. - photo by HIME ROMERO/The Bulletin

Eating their veggies is something that the 20,000 plus Manteca Unified students that dine on school lunches take to heart.
Observe a fruit and vegetable bar in any district cafeteria — either on the elementary or high school level. Students are snapping up everything from apple slices to carrot sticks and even offerings such as kiwis, blueberries and kale that wouldn’t have been within a mile of a school lunch program 20 years ago.
Then take a look at what is going into the orange food waste cans — very little edible produce
It might have something to do with the fact their fellow students are growing roughly a fifth of the vegetables used throughout the year.
It could be due to how the nutritional services staff has gone out of the way to create menus that are healthy and tasty.
Or it could stem from the ongoing effort simply not to feed but to educate given how Manteca Unified views nutritional services as a partner in the learning process.
School farm, seven
campus gardens
growing produce
Whatever the case, Manteca Unified consistently is setting the standard in nutritional services. And nowhere is that more evident than though the district program that employs 12 ag students at the school farm as well as harnesses student gardens at  seven campuses such as Lincoln and Sequoia schools to raise vegetables for student lunches.
“Some kids are excited knowing another student who helped grow the vegetables (and look forward) to easting them,” said Patti Page who serves as the director for nutritional services.
The Farm to School effort to help feed students was started in 2010. It now grows some 15,000 to 18,000 pounds of vegetables annually that are incorporated at least once a week into food served in district cafeterias. That supplements $500,000 a year spent on produce and another $125,000 worth of produce obtained through government surplus programs.
The program has been selected to receive a Golden Seed Harvest Award at the California Farm to School & Garden Conference March 27-29 in Modesto.
It is the latest in a string of awards honoring the mullti-faceted effort of the nutritional services staff at Manteca Unified. The Joshua Cowell School cafeteria staff team that came up with a recipe in partnership with Modesto chef Bryan Ehrenholm and Sierra High culinary student Cameron Hutchinson several years back that made it to the final round of judging by the White House chef at the American Culinary Academy in Texas. 
The Cowell School entry was in the vegetable category and was designed as a side dish for serving with a number of entrees such as grilled chicken and roasted turkey. It employed 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.
But even more impressive than garnering the attention of First Lady Michelle Obama who oversaw the contest, it was a healthy dish that passed muster with young children who can be finicky eaters.
While many districts struggle to connect kids to healthier food at school it hasn’t been an issue for Manteca Unified. Besides actively seeking student feedback and devoting significant energy to create appealing and new entrees and side dishes, a lot of common sense is applied.

Cutting fruit up
reduces waste
“We found that cutting up fruit is a good way to get kids to eat fruit and reduce waste,” Page noted. “Students with braces or who have two front teeth missing find it hard to bite into a whole apple.”
Essentially MUSD doesn’t view students as captive lunch customers. Instead they keep looking for ways to constantly improve the menu as well as put themselves in the shoes of a student.
Nutritional services isn’t just viewed as the department that runs the cafeteria. Instead they are thoroughly integrated into health and fitness education in addition to providing the opportunity for high school students to earn and learn about raising food crops and supplying customers which in this case is Manteca Unified.
Page noted nutritional services has landed a grant that will help the school farm obtain bees and learn how to care for colonies. Besides producing honey, they will be used to pollinate the school farm’s almond orchards each February to save the district $5,000 a year.
The approach Manteca Unified uses is based on the premise a good nutritional services program is just as important as good classroom programs. Page noted 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.
Manteca Unified is also a cut above many other school districts when it comes to the business side. Nutritional services is not a drain on the general fund or the federal’s free meal funding for needy students.
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. 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.
Page said the secret to taking nutritional services to the next level is how change is approached.
“People have a fear of taking steps backward when they try something new,”  Page said. “We pivot instead.”
By that she means if  a challenge proves daunting initially the staff will look for ways to work around it to move toward a goal.
Page said one of the biggest changes since she started in school food service in 1990 working as a part-time dishwasher two hours a day at Tracy schools are student options.
Back then there was only one entree offered on any given day with a side dish a serving of vegetables. On any give day Manteca Unified offers three to five choices for the entree and multiple side dishes along with the veggies, fruits, and salad bar.
“Students have a lot of choices,” Page said. “That is one reason why (nutritional services is so effective).”

To contact Dennis Wyatt, email