Jeff Coats and his wife always knew they wanted to return to Nevada County, having lived here some 20 years ago – so much so that they bought a house in Nevada City a few years back. When Jeff read about a Food Services Director opening in the Grass Valley School District, he applied and is happy to be “home.”
Coats and his team are responsible for providing nutrition to school aged children around the county – breakfast and lunch in Grass Valley schools as well as meals for two preschool and after school programs which consist of dinner and a snack. The district also contracts with other schools to provide meals–be it snacks, lunches, or both. Coats said they follow USDA guidelines. “Contrary to what a lot of people believe, the guidelines for school lunches and school breakfasts are geared to more healthy choices. We determined our students need whole grains- they are better for them than processed flour – we provide a meat or meat alternative every day. We are required to serve fresh fruits and vegetables every day, and 8 fluid ounces of milk. So, every day, what we send out to the students include all of those components.” The current administration is rolling back some of those guidelines which Coats does not necessarily agree with but expects an increase in what he calls “food acceptability” by the students.
The district just underwent an audit which Coats expects to pass but also feels there is room for improvement. “Can we do better? Gosh, we could do so much better! I believe there is some room to improve the program. Parents are concerned about a lot of things, for example, all of the packaging and plastic that we put things in and the perception that it (the food) is not fresh and not healthy for the children.”
Less than six months into the job, Coats is already looking at different ways to effectively meet the guidelines while making improvements to the menus and the process. At the beginning of February, he put salad bars back into the Grass Valley elementary and middle schools. “Reintroducing the salad bars gives us an opportunity to offer more of a variety of fresh vegetables and fresh fruit,” Coats said, “It also allows us to be able to purchase some of the wonderful local stuff that we have and offer that on our salad bar and do some nice marketing for our local farms.” Jeff is looking to connect with local farms this spring and summer and is committed to making purchases of fresh, local food.
Fresh fruits and vegetables in a salad bar do not require packaging so Coats expects to cut packaging by 50% with that one small change. He said more kids eat fruits and vegetables and by giving them a choice, they are more likely to eat what they select, which will cut back on waste while still meeting the guidelines. “It’s a start,” he said. “We have some longer terms goals to retrofit our areas where we serve and put in some steam wells and hot holding wells so that instead of packaging hot food we can serve more family style.” He says while that may not change the corndog they are serving, (which are very popular with students), it won’t be in a package. Coats also plans to retrofit the industrial kitchens to do some scratch cooking.
While Coats has the freedom to serve what he chooses as long as he hits the guidelines and stays within budget, he believes processed food is not the best for growing bodies. “Access to fresh fruits and vegetables with natural sugars and things like that give your body that natural energy and gets you through the day while processed food fills your belly but bogs you down,” he said. “I don’t think our students can concentrate and be the best they can be in school having that type of (processed) food all the time.”
Coats hopes to partner with Sierra Harvest for some marketing to get the word out and to better use produce from local farmers and expects to include harvests from the school’s gardens in the salad bar. Coats concludes, “We are making strides. I am excited to be here and am excited to make changes for the better of our community.”