When someone says school lunches, chances are you think of tasteless pizza, spongy chicken nuggets and soggy sandwiches.
Few can argue with the fact that school lunches have an image problem.
In other words, as Robert Schram, director of Campus Catering at Clovis Unified, likes to say: “School lunches suck, right?”
But as head of one of the central San Joaquin Valley’s larger districts, Schram has made it his mission to try and reverse that trend.
Schram operates by a simple philosophy: “We don’t want to do school lunch here. We want to do lunch at school.”
The difference may seem subtle, but not to Schram, whose credentials include serving as the executive chef of a resort in Colorado where he oversaw seven restaurants.
Under Schram’s direction, Clovis Unified has become a local leader in the battle to change the face of school lunches. It has developed innovative menu items, involved students in the decision process and kept a sharp eye on emerging food trends.
The district makes about 24,000 meals a day and about 45 percent of the student population eats lunch. It’s a solid number, but Schram wants to do better.
With the help of Nancy Whalen, the district’s registered dietician, and Tawnie Kroll, the district’s nutritionist, Clovis has introduced a slew of new foods, including pho, banh mi, chicken Alfredo, Cobb salad, salmon with wild rice and, most recently, baby back ribs with a gochujang glaze.
Haven’t heard of gochujang? Don’t be surprised, neither have most people. Gochujan is a savory and spicy Korean sauce that some in the food world believe will be the next sriracha.
And as strange as it may sound, Clovis Unified’s cafeteria may be one of the few places locally where you can taste it in a dish. That’s a fact that Schram is proud of.
“The students have so many more options for lunch and we have to compete with that, we have to stay on top of the food trends,” Schram says. “Jack in the Box can be very creative, but they don’t have nutritional regulations to deal with. We do.”
Cost is also a factor. The district charges elementary students $2.25 for lunch and $3 for intermediate and high school students. It’s a constant balancing between meeting federal nutritional standards, creating meals that students want to eat, and making them at a price that is affordable.
Yet, despite the challenges, the district also likes to make lunch fun.
Several years ago, students were surprised with spaghetti tacos, an idea borrowed from the popular kids’ comedy TV show, iCarly.
“We are not afraid to try something different, if we think the kids are going to eat it,” Whalen says.
With a diverse population of students, Schram doesn’t hesitate to try ethnic foods. He and his staff worked for six weeks on a pho recipe after a student requested it.
“She had never eaten a school lunch because nothing appealed to her,” Schram says. “But she liked pho and wanted to know if we could put that on the menu, so we did.”
The staff is also working on a version of the Vietnamese sandwich, banh mi. A Chinese chicken salad is in the works and may be rolled out next month.
Whalen says the district encourages student input and routinely conducts taste tests for new products or recipes. Recently, a group of intermediate students gathered at Kastner to sample different chicken patties.
“This is a student-driven menu,” Whalen says.
Kroll, who was hired last summer, is a Fresno State-trained nutritionist and registered dietician. An avid cook, Kroll is also the creator of the popular food blog, krollskorner.com.
The app will allow students and parents to view the weekly menu. Scroll over the item and a photo of the food will pop up along with nutritional information. There is also a link that shows you the amount of carbohydrates for every meal.
One of Kroll’s goals will be to launch an Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook page for Campus Catering.
“We are moving toward where the world is going,” Kroll said.