Janette Wesch entered into a tricky business 20 years ago, one in which her product’s chief competition has been socialization and recess.
As the longtime director of child nutrition at Orcutt Union School District, Wesch has a handle on the needs and desires of her "customer" base, which includes 3,500 elementary-through-high school students daily in each of the district’s 10 schools.
Spicier seasoning for high school students, no grapes for junior high kids — they tend to throw them at each other — and increasingly healthier foods at all grade levels.
“We can offer it,” Wesch told Noozhawk recently, proudly recalling the changes over the years. “This trick is they don’t have to eat it. They’re kids.”
Wesch said Orcutt schools haven’t had trouble keeping up with the ever-changing federal and state standards that require healthier cafeteria foods for the students who aren’t too busy talking and playing to eat.
Soda and a la carte snacks were some of the first items to go when Wesch became director, leaving a dietitian post at French Hospital in San Luis Obispo.
Salad bars and whole-wheat buns have been in the Orcutt school kitchens the past 15 years, dessert is no longer served every day, fries are down to being served just once a month instead of twice, and hotdogs aren’t on any menu.
More scratch cooking is also replacing heated, frozen meals.
“It’s not a huge jump for us,” Wesch said. “All of our foods have definitely gotten healthier. A lot of it is just trying to make it fun.”
This year, skim milk has replaced low-fat milk, and all students must walk away with a tray that contains at least a half-cup of a fruit or vegetable because of new standards, she said.
An idealist at first, Wesch, a Bay Area native, said she quickly realized that her job would rely heavily on the results of taste testing with students, who tend to have mixed feelings about new menu items.
Students enjoy the new whole-grain pasta, but some won’t eat it if they see its brown color.
Wesch’s solution was to teach cafeteria cooks to pour pasta sauce on top before doling it out to students.
Likewise, students aren’t too keen on the veggie burgers, which were first offered this fall.
A recent switch to chicken tenderloins from chicken nuggets fazed fewer students, and most don’t seem to mind brown rice instead of white.
Wesch joked that she understands the struggle some students have letting go of past eating habits, partly because she has incorporated some of the same changes into cooking for her husband.
“We just kind of inch along,” she said. “This year we’re focusing more on bringing in new items for the salad bar. The ultimate goal is to educate the parents.”
In the meantime, Wesch said she plans to conduct more taste testing with students, who, in spite of changes, continue to be customers who will always be right.