Lake Tahoe is an irreplaceable jewel of America—and no one celebrates it more than local residents. That’s why sustainability efforts are paramount to everyone: citizens, area businesses and the school district’s foodservice operation, even if it costs more.
“That concept is not siloed in our towns,” says Kat Soltanmorad, director of food services at Tahoe Truckee Unified School District. “It’s all weaved together in an integrated way through every person and every organization. It’s a part of what it means to live here.”
Read on to see how the district has taken on such efforts.Nominate an FSO of the Month
Making a change
Sustainability isn’t always easy to achieve in a school environment, where high volumes and short lunch periods can mean cafeterias full of plastic utensils, single-item food packaging and other one-time use goods.
That’s not so throughout Tahoe Truckee, which uses silverware and compostable cups in cafeterias, serves on reusable dishware for all district meetings and has composted food waste for the past two years.
As of this school year, the district has also eliminated nearly all single-use foods, instead purchasing in bulk for goods such as cheese, salad greens, crackers, condiments, juice and more. (Though the rural district does still have a small amount of single-use items such as applesauce cups, these are generally supplied through services such as the USDA Commodity Supplemental Food Program.)Nominate an FSO of the Month
Smoothing out the sticking points
In the move away from individually packaged items, two in particular have posed supply challenges. The first is milk cartons, a ubiquitous source of waste. The district is required to supply two different kinds of milk, and because it doesn’t serve sugary flavored varieties, it opts for 1% and nonfat.
Soltanmorad and her team want to pilot milk dispensers and reusable cups, perhaps as early as this year. But suppliers offered the 5- or 6-gallon bags in whole milk and chocolate milk—seemingly everything but the 1% and nonfat they needed. After months of floating the problem to suppliers and partners, however, Soltanmorad thinks they’re close to a solution.
A more challenging item has been mozzarella cheese sticks. The students love them, but Soltanmorad has had trouble IDing a supplier who will sell bulk mozzarella in sticks, cubes, cracker cuts or other single-serving formats. “They have them in Swiss, pepper jack, everything but mozzarella,” she says.
Switching to bulk can be “an intense endeavor” for these and other logistical reasons, she says, but she’s grateful to have financial support from partners and the community. “Traditionally, foodservice is supposed to be self-sustaining as a business—but because our community, school board and our superintendent see us as an extension of our classrooms, as a place to learn, we get that support we need,” Soltanmorad says.
Part of that extension includes initiatives such as Green Teams, a project through the local Sierra Watershed Education Partnerships (SWEP) that engages K-5 students with the environment. As Soltanmorad explains, “Older students from the high schools teach the younger ones about activities like composting and recycling and why it’s important for the planet. It gets them excited, but it also gives them a sense of ownership. It teaches all of them about their individual responsibility—yet it’s done in a way that’s fun and interactive.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Bringing it full circle
Other hands-on activities include the Harvest of the Month program, a dietitian-led initiative that celebrates a particular fruit or vegetable. A parent is invited to come in and prepare a dish, and the children read a related story and learn how the item is grown.
Cook Kelly Frankenberg and her team at Tahoe Lake Elementaryalso feature the Harvest of the Month selection as part of special menu items. Certain picks require more persuasion for students to try them, she says. In the rural Tahoe basin area, “there are no Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s—people travel to Reno for that—so this might not be something they’ve seen before.”
But the Tahoe Truckee team understands that children often must be introduced to new flavors several times before they begin to like them. Unique and varied preparations help too. “Sometimes it’s beet salad, beet juice or even a chocolate beet muffin,” Frankenbergsays. “Other times it’s as simple as blood oranges cut up as a snack—the kids just loved the vibrant color. If you can find what draws them in, they’re so much more open to trying something new.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
A broader effort
The district sources some of this produce from partners such as Tahoe Food Hub, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that connects 50 area farms with schools, grocers, restaurants and more to create a successful food local system. Connections like these are what allow Tahoe Truckee to achieve its sustainability goals and other endeavors, Soltanmorad says.
“I would stress to others that it doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen alone,” she says. “You can find people to write grant applications, to work with your facilities departments, to connect with the community. Figure out where your needs are first and then you can identify the partners who want to help make it happen.”
And the nutrition team—all of whom have or had a child in the district or are an alum themselves—keeps in mind that its partnerships and programs are aimed at one core goal: building a healthy, sustainable and happy space for food in their community. “When the [students] come into the cafeteria, I feel like they’re coming into my house, my kitchen,”Frankenberg says. “We care about the students and how they’re nourished, and I think they can feel that.”Nominate an FSO of the Month
Ask the FSD: Kat Soltanmorand
Director of food services for Tahoe Truckee Unified School District
Q: What are your goals for the coming year?
Our goal is to move into the world of a la carte and grab-and-go while continuing to meet our sustainability goals. The feedback we get from kids every year is that they want something fast. They want to be able to run into the cafeteria and then head outside with a meal on the go or grab a snack before an after-school activity.
Q: What is it that makes your operation excel?
Our care and love for our kids, hands down. In our staff meetings, we get really excited about food: cooking it, trying it, serving it. We treat it like we’re feeding our families. We want them to absolutely love it.
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