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Sonoma strives to break new ground in food services

Chef Cody Williams has ambitious farm to table plans for Sonoma lunchrooms.

Chef Cody Williams has ambitious farm to table plans for Sonoma lunchrooms.

Lorna Sheridan/Index-Tribune Education Editor

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Cody Williams’ jaw dropped when he first compared the cost per serving of a school lunch in Sonoma to the meals he had only recently prepared at Mustard’s Restaurant in Napa. New to the job as food services director for the entire school district this fall, he has adjusted quickly and has ambitious farm-to-table plans for our schools.

Williams is the first classically trained, professional chef to hold the district’s food services job. For the past two years, he has been the chef de cuisine of the Boon Fly restaurant at the Carneros Inn. He has also held chef positions at the Fairmont Mission Inn and at Mohonk Mountain House in New York. Williams graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York with an associate’s degree in culinary arts and a bachelor’s degree in hospitality management.

Williams inherited a meal calendar that had already been set for the year by his predecessor, Donna Luzzi, who was retiring, and he is continuing her hard work of trying to get produce from the school gardens onto lunchroom trays.

If you haven’t eaten in a school lunchroom since you were a student, many things are different and many are exactly as you remember. Items on the elementary school menu include new entries like beef soft tacos, stuffed bread sticks and mandarin orange chicken as well as some traditional items like mac and cheese, spaghetti and pork chop patties.

Lunch costs $2.75 for students in the elementary schools, $3.25 at the two middle schools and $3.50 at the high school. Approximately 50 percent of all Sonoma public school students currently receive free breakfast and lunch, and an additional 9 percent qualify for a reduced price. These percentages are increasing slightly every year.

If you factor in the students who bring their own lunch, or the legions of high school students who buy their lunch off-campus, you don’t have a lot of cash coming in to fund the lunch program. According to Deputy Superintendent Justin Frese, the district has an annual food services budget of $1.9 million that is largely offset by state and federal funds for free and reduced price lunches.

Students who don’t qualify for a free or reduced price lunch pay with cash, or families can pre-pay for meals via a web-based school lunch payment program. No child ever goes hungry. Parents are called if a child arrives with no way to pay for lunch, and students are offered an alternate lunch until the account is brought current.

Williams’ overriding goal? “I hope to find the balance between foods cooked fresh, in a consistent way that is not overly time-consuming or over budget. I want to serve foods that are grown and sourced locally, that are minimally processed, and offer the most beneficial nutrients possible.” He is eager to encourage healthy eating by offering lots of produce, preferably from the school gardens, and by using fresh ingredients. You can see a very detailed list of the ingredients of every item served at the schools online at web1.sonomavly.k12.ca.us/ingredients.php.

Everyone seems to agree that fresh and local is better. To that end, every Monday the district receives deliveries from Salinas-based Coastline Produce of fresh fruits and vegetables that might include pineapples, melons, watermelons, grapes, kiwi, mangos, spinach, carrots, green beans, beats, celery, cucumbers and jicama.

In 2012, Sonoma schools as well as all schools nationwide were asked to meet new federal standards for meals. The standards set up specific calorie guidelines and portion sizes by age band, limits on saturated fat, larger servings of fruit and vegetables, less sodium and more whole grain foods. For example, this year all baked goods must be made with at least half whole wheat, and next year the requirement will be 100 percent.

In preparation for these changes, the Sonoma Nutrition and Physical Activity Advisory Council (SNAC) leapt into action. SNAC is a liaison between food services and school sites charged with helping implement these changes at the site level. This group is made up of teachers, principals, staff, administrators, parents and community members.

SNAC members have their work cut out for them. According to District Superintendent Louann Carlomagno, “The challenge is to provide healthy and yet still tasty meals for picky kids at an extremely low price. Easier said, and imagined … than done.” But Williams is happy to report that Sonoma is ahead of the new guidelines and “in fact, we often have other districts coming to us to get advice.”

A native son, Williams attended Flowery Elementary School, Altimira Middle School and Sonoma Valley High School. His wife, Amber, teaches fifth grade at El Verano Elementary School. Outside of work, Williams has enjoyed getting to know his wife’s mentee, and through the Ceres Community Project he is helping put teens in a kitchen to help prepare nutritious meals for cancer patients.

This is a time of dramatic change in food services, and Williams is thrilled to be in a position to lead the charge for Sonoma. “The idea of the edible schoolyard and using our school gardens is something that really interests me,” he said. “This job allows me to give back to the community that played such a big role in developing my passion for food, health and nutrition.”

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You can learn more about Sonoma’s food services at www.svusdca.org/food-services.html/.