By Kelly Hartog
FIELD’s Epic High School for adults operates at over 22 sites in California with little to no kitchen equipment to feed its students or support its nutrition classes.
But now, thanks to a $100,000 grant from the California Department of Education, FIELD will be able to build out a fully equipped kitchen space for the 2024 school year at the 11.2-acre Union Avenue facility FIELD purchased last year. The space will be able to operate as a scratch-cook central kitchen for South Bakersfield and its seven surrounding sites and expand the central kitchen to other areas of the state with the goal of providing nutritious, locally sourced meals for all FIELD students throughout the state of California.
EPIC is a certified official school food authority and operates a reimbursable meal program under the 9-12 High School nutrition standards. Most of the students are low-income and are also English language learners. Eighty-five percent of them at the South Bakersfield location qualify for free or reduced meals.
FIELD’s Director of Nutrition Services Helena Villarino-Wright worked tirelessly to secure this grant and spoke about her plans for the funds and the vision for the nutrition program.
When do you expect to have the kitchen completed and operational?
We hope to be fully operational in time for the 2024/25 school year. We’re hoping to do some recipe testing by this time next year but fully operational when school starts in September 2024.
Why is this grant so important for FIELD?
In the 2019/20 school year, charter schools were required to provide one meal per day. Breakfast is much easier to serve to students. At the time I think we had 24 school sites. We didn’t have a commercial grade refrigerator to keep food fresh. We didn’t even have storage shelves!
That first year we started out with breakfast. We used a vendor who just did shelf stable items, which wasn’t the most nutritious. We had the kind of breakfast where you peel the top off the Cheerios box and pour your milk in. It had all the required components: the fruit, the grain, the milk, it just wasn’t the most nutritious. We were just trying to get by. That alone was a huge feat. But we did get some other grant money and with that we got refrigerators, and we could start putting our milk in them!
Then last year, California implemented universal meals at all schools, meaning every student was entitled to one breakfast and one lunch every single day at school for free. We had to abide by that law. Breakfast was easy, but with lunch comes so many more components: vegetables and their subcategories: dark green, red, orange, starchy vegetables. And you can’t satisfy that with shelf stable items. We had to secure vendors, but we didn’t even have cutting boards or a kitchen to wash fruits and vegetables, so we had to look for vendors that did individually- wrapped produce.
What will you now be able to do with this grant money?
When we purchased the property last year, the kitchen was old, outdated, and the previous owners had taken all the equipment with them. They left a two-compartment sink, which isn’t even adequate for a commercial kitchen.
The California Department of Education nutrition services division is huge on implementing the universal meal program and that means scratch cooked, minimally processed, locally grown foods. When I saw the facility, I decided I was going to apply for this grant, and sure enough, we got it. It’s $100,000, but you would’ve thought it was a million!
We have these two gentlemen on staff we call the Leon brothers. They currently work in the recycling center, but they run restaurants, they do our catering. I asked them what equipment we need to get a kitchen going – the bare minimum, because it’s easy to blow through $100,000.
Now, we will be able to purchase a convection oven, gas range with a burner and oven, an exhaust hood, a refrigerator and freezer, as well as a high-powered dishwasher. And we also got another grant last year called the School Breakfast Grant. And with that, we purchased vending machines.
Why did you decide on vending machines?
Think about our school. We are located throughout California. We’ve got 22 sites. We don’t have cafeterias, so our teachers are the ones who hand out the meals. Well, they didn’t sign up to do that. They signed up to teach. But this is what we ask of them in a small charter school. With the vending machines, the students can put in their two IDs and get food. You can load them with anything, like healthy yogurt parfaits.
What are your goals for the nutrition program?
Making those scratch cook meals is high on the list. We’re so lucky because we have adult students, and usually the adult palate is just more refined so we can work on those scratch cooked meals. I mean, who doesn’t like a Southwest chicken salad? As a school meal? That would be amazing. Many of our corpsmembers are unhoused and bring a bag of chips for lunch. A lot of them go from getting their kids off to school, straight to class. Maybe they’ll go to work and come to class in the evening. I’m excited about all the things we’re going to be able to do.