It took seven years of complaints and lobbying by Katie Aaron and other parents to convince the Napa Valley Unified School District to offer better tasting and healthier school lunches for students.
But it took less than two months to see real change in school cafeterias after the district pushed aside its longtime food contractor, Sodexo, and hired a chef from Colorado to build a new nutrition program.
“I’m thoroughly impressed with the offerings,” Aaron said last Thursday after she and other parents joined students in the Silverado Middle School cafeteria for lunch.
That day the menu featured fish tacos, chicken meatballs with Sacramento rice, and grilled cheese sandwiches, along with a fully stocked salad bar loaded with fresh vegetables and fruits.
“There was taste!” Aaron said with glee about her fish taco, which featured baked Pacific Grenadier.
A common complaint with school lunches under Sodexo was the food had little taste. If it did have taste, it wasn’t good. “Hockey puck” and “sweaty pizza” were just some of the derogatory descriptions students used about meals under the old regime.
Aaron said she did not expect to see such positive, “amazing” results so quickly.
“I told people there wouldn’t be any changes until next year,” said Aaron, “and already in just a month and a half — Brandy only got here in July!”
Brandy would be Brandy Dreibelbis, NVUSD’s first nutrition director, who hit the ground running after moving to Napa mid-summer from Boulder, Colorado.
Dreibelbis acknowledged the work of Aaron and other parents who fought for healthier and more enjoyable lunches for kids.
“The parents are really responsible for the change and bringing me here,” said Dreibelbis as students lined up to buy their meals.
During her first six weeks on the job, Dreibelbis visited school kitchens and met with cooking staff, and figured out ways to produce higher-quality meals using food provided by Sodexo because it is still under contract for one more year.
“First and foremost, I wanted to limit what they offered on their menu,” said Dreibelbis, who previously worked in restaurants and most recently was executive chef and district manager with the School Food Project at Boulder Valley School District.
“Sodexo had a million things on the menu,” she added, “and I really wanted to clean up the products we were buying, eliminate as much pre-packaged junk food items that we were offering on our menu.”
Among the changes were getting rid of chocolate milk and high fructose corn syrup, and doing a better job of stocking the salad bars in school cafeterias.
“The district had the physical salad bars; they just weren’t using them correctly,” Dreibelbis said. “They had weird stuff on them like orange juice. I wanted to put real salad bars out that only offer real fruits and vegetables and that were part of the required meal so kids had to take something from the salad bar every day.”
Starting next year, Dreibelbis plans to shop for other commodity sources once the Sodexo contract is completely over.
“There’s definitely some things that my hands are tied with for the first year,” she said.
Regardless of the limitations, parents and students already appreciate what’s being served at lunchtime.
On Thursday, a Silverado student shouted, “I like the sauce on the meatballs!”
Another student, sixth-grader Wyatt Chiffoleau, said school lunches are “way better than last year” when he was in elementary school “because it has lots of flavors.”
Laura Milla-Miller, a parent who fought alongside Aaron to change the program, said she knew good things were already in the works after her daughter came home from Harvest Middle School and asked for some money to buy lunch — a surprising request considering she had refused for years to eat school food.
Her daughter’s critique, according to Milla-Miller, was: “I had the mac and cheese. It was not Fume, but it was really good.”
Milla-Miller offered up her own glowing review after trying the food on Thursday at Silverado.
“I think this fish taco is delicious,” she said. “The fish is super fresh, the tortilla is soft and not breaking apart. The salsa is mild and the cabbage is fresh, and my salad is beautiful. There’s a variety” to it.
Katherine Jalaty, whose child attends Redwood Middle School, tried the grilled cheese sandwich that included cauliflower, broccoli, and bell pepper.
“It’s amazing,” said Jalaty. “I’m so impressed. It’s so good. Everything is so fresh.”
She glanced over toward the salad bar, noting that under Sodexo, it was stocked with canned vegetables. But now that everything in it is fresh, “the kids are eating it,” she said.
“They’re going for it, which is great,” said Jalaty.
School administrators, too, say the early reviews from students are positive after they finish lunch.
“The kids always give me a report as they’re going out the door” of the cafeteria, said Jamey Myers, assistant principal at Silverado.
“They say, ‘Meatballs, thumbs up!” she said. “The kids are generally making more positive daily comments” about the food this year.
Silverado’s other assistant principal, Keith Sedgley, said the buzz around campus has even reached teachers, who want to try the food.
“I don’t remember too often staff saying, ‘Let’s all go down and eat at the cafeteria,’” said Sedgley. But now they’re saying just that: “Let’s go.”