As the fine-dining chef at her high school served samples of his newest recipes, Anahi Nava Flores gave her critique of a baguette sandwich with Toscano salami, organic Monterey Jack, arugula and a scratch-made basil spread: “This pesto aioli is good!”
Classmate Kentaro Turner devoured a deli-style pastrami melt on sourdough and moved on to free-range chicken simmered in chipotle broth with Spanish-style rice. “Everything is delicious!”
These are not words typically uttered in school cafeterias.
The food served at the suburban San Francisco school system, Mount Diablo Unified, reflects a trend away from mass-produced, reheated meals. Its lunch menus are filled with California-grown fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats and recipes that defy the stereotype of inedible school food.
Among American schoolchildren, these students are in the lucky minority. Making fresh meals requires significant investment and, in many areas, an overhaul of how school kitchens have operated for decades. Inflation and supply chain disruptions have only made it harder on school nutrition directors, widening gaps in access to affordable, high-quality food.
What’s more, federal money to boost lunch budgets has declined. The government last year ended a pandemic-era program offering free school meals to everyone. A few states, such as California, have been paying to keep meals free for all students, but most states went back to charging all but the neediest kids for meals.
Increases in money from California’s state government have made it possible for Mount Diablo to buy fresher local ingredients and hire the chef, Josh Gjersand, a veteran of Michelin-starred restaurants. Local farms, bakers, creameries and fishermen now supply most ingredients to the district, which serves 30,000 students from wealthy and low-income communities east of San Francisco.
On a recent January morning, student taste testers were sampling Gjersand’s latest creations. His daily specials have ranged from barbecue spare ribs to fresh red snapper on a whole-grain brioche bun.
“I love the idea of serving students better food,” said Gjersand, who quit restaurants during the pandemic, when serving a wagyu-beef-and-caviar crowd lost its luster. “School cafeterias should feel like restaurants, and not fast food chains.”
School systems elsewhere can only dream of such offerings.
“Financially, we are dying right now,” said Patti Bilbrey, nutrition…