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Cafeteria Overhaul: Featuring Healthier, Local Foods, and More Scratch Cooking

Dec 13, 2018

The Challenge

The Monterey County Health Department partnered with the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District (MPUSD) Wellness Committee. They found ways the district could offer healthier and fresher school meals. The improved meals feature local produce, meats, seafood, and more scratch cooking. The health department also proposed changes that would improve food services to make school meals healthier.

The Solution

The health department staff met often with a group of people: 

  • six school districts and school wellness committees
  • administrators
  • food service directors
  • staff 

Together, they made changes in school cafeterias. This teamwork led to better campus foods and beverages.

Health department nutrition educators provide direct education in six MPUSD schools. They also work in two preschools that serve more than 3,000 students. MPUSD has over 10,000 students and serves more than 4,400 lunches and 3,200 breakfasts daily.

The health department worked with the MPUSD food service director and food supervisor to complete the WellSat 2.0  a few years ago. They used the survey results to improve school meals and the layout of several cafeterias. 

The first proposed solution was to buy more produce, meats, and seafood from local farmers, ranchers, and fishers. 

The school district removed five ingredients of concern from all menu items: 

  • high fructose corn syrup 
  • hydrogenated oils 
  • sugar substitutes 
  • artificial flavors 
  • artificial colors

MPUSD also revamped one of the high school cafeterias. By using food placement strategies, they created food court-style dining. They incorporated healthy food stations such as “grab and go” and salad and deli bars.

For the second step, the food service director met with the food service team. They came up with creative ways to retrain staff. Food service teams were encouraged to develop and add themed recipes to the school menus.

After these actions, the district made several key changes in the school cafeterias:

  • installed salad bars in more schools
  • prepared food from scratch two to three times each week
  • created new recipes to add to the menus
  • included school meal promotions like “Meatless Mondays,” “Bay to Tray” (serving locally sourced seafood), and “California Thursdays” (serving only locally produced foods)
  • added “grab and go” breakfast items

The Results

Over the past year, the MPUSD:

  • removed chocolate milk from the elementary and middle schools
  • developed a new logo (fresh & delish) to highlight food service meals
  • piloted a supper program
  • used Smarter Lunchrooms Movement strategies in two schools
  • continued “California Thursdays” in all schools
  • continued to eliminate foods and drinks with the five ingredients of concern from the menu
  • served only whole grain products
  • prepared food from scratch two to three times per week with plans to expand this program to daily scratch cooking
  • bought locally grown fruits and vegetables (80% of produce was produced no further away than 130 miles)
  • hired a culinary specialist to train staff and create healthy recipes
  • hired more part-time food service staff to help support these changes

The food service director noted more participation in the free and reduced-priced breakfast and lunch programs. As food service program grew, school food service staff found that the central kitchen was outdated and small. Food service staff and the wellness committee shared these findings with the school district administration. This information was used to create a local bond measure. The measure proposes to build a larger and more modernized central kitchen facility. The new facility will serve more meals to students.

Sustaining Success

Over the next couple of years, the team plans to address obstacles. The goal is for the changes to become the normal way of operation. The wellness team will continue to share information about the changes and impacts with parents, students, teachers, and administrators. The wellness team is also planning: 

  • to pilot a work study program
  • to incorporate a nutrition education curriculum into the classroom
  • to develop a seasonal cycle menu 

Each school year, two to three schools will begin to incorporate Smarter Lunchroom Movement strategies. The MPUSD is excited to share its best practices, challenges, and resources with other school districts. 

Stories from the Field

The California Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed) aims to inspire and empower underserved Californians to improve their health and the health of their communities through healthy eating and active living. The program facilitates this through education and community change in partnership with many others.

The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) shares this story to highlight a snapshot of some of the California SNAP-Ed work conducted by local health departments and partners across the Golden State.


CDPH funds local health departments, 57 county and three city health departments, to conduct SNAP-funded obesity prevention programming across the state. The UC CalFresh Nutrition Education Program, California Department of Aging, and Catholic Charities of California, Inc. also fund local agencies to conduct programs that align with the California SNAP-Ed mission. The California Department of Social Services oversees the collective California SNAP-Ed work.

Expanding our Reach

We hope these community stories inspire you to envision how to create a healthier tomorrow!

This article was submitted by the Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Branch California Department of Public Health. For more information, please contact Niaomi Hrepich.