OAKLAND -- Donna Irby has worked behind the cafeteria lines for 13 years, serving meals at dozens of Oakland schools. But only recently has she been able to do what she loves with any regularity: cook food from scratch.
Those were the kind of lunches she remembered from her school days, before school districts shifted to prepackaged, processed fare that could be bought and served cheaply, without a working kitchen.
Now, despite their shoestring budgets and countless other obstacles, Oakland and many other California school districts are working to bring more cooking back to the cafeteria -- this time, with an emphasis on local, seasonal produce and flavors from different regions of the world.
"This is the direction we need to go and, like I say, this is a long time coming," Irby said.
On Monday, food service employees from 21 counties statewide, including Alameda, San Mateo, San Francisco and Marin, shared ideas and recipes at a two-day conference, "Rethinking School Lunch," organized by the Berkeley-based Center for Ecoliteracy. The conference, held at the Oakland Museum of California, is covering everything from innovative ways to buy local food for school meals to the nutritional benefits of scratch cooking.
"I came just to see what it's all about," said Angelina Nava, food service director for the New Haven school district, whose central kitchen is now making Spanish rice and chicken fajitas from scratch.
Organizers estimate that the districts represented at this week's event, including Los Angeles, serve roughly 300 million of the 900 million meals provided to students each year statewide. Participants will leave with thumb drives containing recipes serving 50 to 100 children.
Late Monday morning, they gathered around one of the 15 demonstration kitchens set up in the museum's courtyard. As jazz music played in the background, they prepared and sampled dishes from the Center for Ecoliteracy's cookbook for schools: chicken fajitas, curried chicken salad pita, summer chicken stew, vegetable biryani, and cucumber raita, a yogurt-based salad, among others.
As Irby talked, she stirred a pot of quinoa -- tiny, edible seeds that are high in protein and with a texture that reminded her of cream of wheat. "That's what I've learned today," she said, after asking about the spelling of the food and how long it takes to cook. "It's something I've never cooked before."
This is the second statewide school lunch conference organized by the Center for Ecoliteracy. Zenobia Barlow, its director, said the center recruited teams of employees from school districts this year; a second day was added to the conference so those teams could return to their districts with not only inspiration, but a plan.
"So much of this is attitudinal, the belief that you can do it, and the inspiration to do it," Barlow said.
Kristen Lindstrom, principal of La Honda Elementary School in San Mateo County, said her small school is collaborating with nearby districts to buy nutritious food for their students. Her school, which has a vegetable and herb garden, is trying to replicate a program in which fifth-graders cook lunch for their classmates -- with produce her students have cultivated and harvested.
But Lindstrom's goals extend beyond her district. She hopes enough districts will organize around healthful school food principles to make a more sweeping change for children. She said she hoped to leave the conference with an answer to this question: "How can we make those bigger systemic changes, like who do we order from?"
Lindstrom said healthy eating is important, not only to students' physical well-being, but also to their academic progress.
"We know how important it is, academically and socially," Lindstrom said. "A lot of principals have to focus on the achievement gap, but this is part of it."
For more information about cooking healthful school lunches with California food, including a downloadable cookbook, visit www.ecoliteracy.org.