Erin Primer has always felt drawn to food. Her first job was in a restaurant, and from there, she continued to learn the art of serving guests good, fresh meals while working at colleges, hospitals and the San Francisco Zoo.
When her career path led her to school foodservice, she was struck by how the standard model in that segment differed from what was going on elsewhere in the industry.
“I really didn't understand why we wouldn't take the same approach of having just good food and fresh food, and having it be served really attractively,” says Primer.
But she was able to put her own approach into action when she became the nutrition director for San Luis Coastal Unified School District in San Luis Obispo, Calif., seven years ago.
Under Primer’s leadership, the nutrition team transformed the district’s food program from a heat-and-serve operation to one built around serving students local, scratch-made meals.
Finding their story
When she first started at San Luis, Primer had the team sit down and come up with their own brand to provide direction for the program.
During these conversations, team members discussed their values and what they wanted the program to be about. Those dialogues resulted in the development of the nutrition team’s Food Matters logo, which acted as their guiding star as they started restructuring.
“We really talked about how food really matters and what we do matters,” says Primer. “And that really created the foundation for everything we did beyond that.”
One of the team’s early goals was to develop a better presence on social media and find ways to tell its story online.
"We were doing some really cool things and we just didn't tell anybody about it,” says Primer. “We were buying local kiwi from a grower but not amplifying that story, and so some of it wasn't even making changes, some of it was just telling that story so that people knew what we were doing with our program.”
Primer set up social media accounts for the program and used graphic design platforms like Canva to create fun graphics for posts. Another essential tool was ParentSquare, a program used by the district to send virtual flyers and other information to parents and guardians.
“Messaging with parents has been really critical for our success because they're the ones really helping students make those decisions about eating at school,” says Primer. “And the more confident and comfortable they feel in the quality of food that we produce, the more likely they're going to encourage their student to eat that meal at school."
Investing in staff
One of the biggest changes to the program was shifting much of the food preparation from a central facility to each of the school’s on-site kitchens.
With all these shifts, staff were a little hesitant at the beginning, says Primer; however, once they saw how the program was improving, they quickly got on board.
“I think staff really could see, taste and smell that we were on to something,” she says. “They saw that we were getting really delicious, fresh, local products and were excited to work with them.”
Primer also made sure that her team felt heard and invested in. Staff received training on how to work with fresh ingredients and produce scratch-made meals. And as the quality of the meals they were serving improved, the more engaged staff became.
“To have people take a lot of pride and ownership in what they're doing, I think that's how we really get people to buy in that this is really a career,” says Primer. “It’s not just a job that's part time or maybe doesn't have as much meaning. This really matters and you can actually make this into a career that you're really proud of.”
There are no longer any four-hour positions for staff. Instead, most team members work eight hours a day and have full benefits. When Primer first started at the district, she was working with a team of 20. Today, it numbers over 40, including a dietician and three chefs.
Making strides with farm-to-school
A big focus for the program through the years has been expanding its farm-to-school efforts. During Primer’s first year leading the program, the team spent around $6,000 on local procurement. In her second year, that amount doubled.
Primer remembers speaking about her team’s accomplishment at a farm-to-school conference and how attendees made her realize there was still more they could do.
“I didn't realize my audience was mostly farmers, and so, I’m saying, ‘We're doing so well with farm to school. We spent 12 grand with local farmers,’ and I had a farmer raise his hand, and he said, ‘Well, how much is your total food budget?’ I didn't really think about it in those terms, and it was at that moment where I realized that while I was so proud of doubling our school spend, in the scheme of things, it really wasn't making that big of an imprint,” says Primer.
From that point on, the team leaned further into local sourcing. One of its biggest pushes came during the pandemic, when the team partnered with nearby suppliers to procure local cheese, eggs, bread, produce and other items for pantry boxes distributed to families.
Today, 30% of the nutrition team’s food budget is spent with local farms and businesses, and the district works with over 30 local suppliers.
With so many different local partners, Primer works with a county-wide farm-to-school coordinator to help manage the program. The coordinator was hired through grant funding and has been essential to expanding the district’s reach with local suppliers and helping Primer sort through what products are available.
“I don't have to cold call 30 farmers,” says Primer. “I get to say things like ‘Hey, I need avocados,’ and then she has four different people I can call and talk to.”
Tackling a major renovation
Primer and her team’s success in transforming the program’s meal service was evident in their latest project—a renovation of the cafe at Morro Bay High School.
Having not had any major renovation in over 50 years, the high school’s cafe and kitchen was due for an upgrade. The renovation was funded through a bond measure, which also included a couple other projects in the district.
When planning out the new space, the team doubled down on offering students a restaurant-quality experience. The new and improved cafe includes several micro-concepts where food is prepared in plain sight.
At the rotisserie concept, for example, students can see and smell chickens rotating on the spit when they walk past. Over at the wok station, they can look on as staff prepare noodles and dumplings.
“There's not a lot of hidden cooking, everything is out and in the open,” says Primer. “And I think kids really respond to knowing that their food is fresh and cooked for them, and they have a deeper connection to how it actually gets to their plate.”
The back of house also saw many improvements, including the installation of a dish room and several new pieces of equipment, including a blast chiller that can dehydrate and pasteurize. Primer hopes that she’ll be able to use that to make in-house yogurt to better control for things like sugar content.
“This yogurt piece is a big a big part of what I'm looking at,” she says. “There's not a lot that exists in the market. So having the equipment and having the staff to be able to produce those things in house is truly a way for us to meet those new [U.S. Department of Agriculture] proposed regulations and, you know, have just a better experience for kiddos.”
The new space opened last month to positive response from both students and staff. As students toured their new eatery, Primer could see that they were excited and proud of their school’s nutrition program, a feeling that she wants every student in the country to experience.
“That's really what I want for everyone,” says Primer. “I want all districts to be able to have that sense of pride and for all students to be able to have that sense of pride in their school district’s meal program. What a beautiful reality that is to have kids proud of what their school district’s doing, and if it’s free and good, I really think that's the ticket to the future.”
Get to know San Luis Coastal Unified’s Erin Primer
See what’s in store for Primer’s operation, which was named FSD’s June Foodservice Operation of the Month.
Q: What makes your operation excel?
Honestly, I think what it is, and I hate to use the word resilient because we've overused that throughout the pandemic, but we're not afraid. We're not afraid to make a choice, to try something and fail. We’re in education, we're in a learning environment, so being able to try things, to test things out and adjust, I think that's really important [to] being able to have not only long-term success, but quick success.
Q: What are your goals for the operation in the coming year?
We really just want to invest in our people and raise up the level of culinary skill and ability. We're actually going to take our team to the Culinary Institute of America up in Napa this summer and do true professional culinary training.
And then, just continuing to see our partnerships grow with local producers. I would love nothing more than to see 100% of our food budget spent directly with local farms and food businesses. Do I think that's possible? Yes. Do I think it will take a long time? Yes. But I think that there's so much that we can do.
I think pre-pandemic, a lot of school food operators just thought that's going to take a long time or they didn’t know that that's even possible, we don't move that fast. And the pandemic really showed us that, you know what? We can do that. We can move fast and we can adjust. So, continuing to see school food evolve into something that is prized and is a thing we're proud of, I think that's my next goal for school food and to see more operators be supported in doing these kinds of things.Nominate an FSO of the Month