Last updated 9/20/2007 at Noon
The Beach Café at Fallbrook Union High School, also known as “the cafeteria,” is now as bright and colorful as the food court in a mall, but the food is far superior.
Credit the improvements to executive chef Vince Scimone, who came aboard as Director of Child Nutrition Services to operate the food service for the school. Scimone brought with him skills and expertise learned at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, as well as hands-on restaurant experience at Savoy 614 in Sacramento, the Carmel Mission Inn and food service in the Sacramento school district.
Food service at Fallbrook High had been the same for 16 years with few variations, Scimone says. He’s made a lot of changes, all to the good. First to go were the fried foods. No more French fries at all. Instead, students can choose either beef or turkey burgers with baked chips. Scimone has help, though.
Nationally, rising rates of obesity and high blood pressure in children resulted in two pieces of California legislation in 2005 which mandate serving healthy foods to schoolchildren. Senate Bill 12 states “…no more than 35 percent of the calories can be from fat, no more than 10 percent of the calories from saturated fat, and no more than 35 percent of the total weight can be composed of sugar.”
Further, Senate Bill 965 regulates beverages, eliminating sodas completely and restricting sweetener content on fruit and vegetable drinks to 50 percent and water drinks to no sweeteners at all.
Some school food service managers might find these changes perplexing, but not Scimone. He has managed to improve the entree offerings in variety, taste and nutrition and speed access to them, too.
Walk into the cafeteria and the first impression is of cleanliness. The floors gleam; the counters shine. Large colorful artwork painted by students depicting healthy foods like pineapple and kiwi hang on the white walls.
Surrounding the food service lines, murals reflect the Beach Café theme, showing surfers, palm trees and the blue ocean. Above each of the four service areas, menu boards labeled “Szechuan,” “California,” “Cancun” and “Manhattan” list foods available in those areas.
Students standing in the Szechuan line can choose from Kung Pao Chicken, Teriyaki or Orange Chicken served with rice – all low-fat. They can get burgers and chicken strips in the California line.
In the Cancun line, students can buy a Bean Burrito or a Verde Beef Bowl made from ground beef, green chili sauce, sautéed peppers and onion, served with Spanish rice and flour tortillas.
The Manhattan line offers Chicken Caesar and Chinese Chicken Salads and turkey, ham or tuna sandwiches served with a small vegetable salad and low-fat ranch dressing. Drinks, chips, healthy snacks and ice cream all compliant with new regulations are sold in this line, too.
“We’re adding a ‘build-your-own-taco’ [option] also,” Scimone adds.
The new cafeteria food and surroundings increased business, too. “It’s all in the marketing,” Scimone says. But when usage is up 30 percent over last year, serving 860 students per day compared to 560 before the changes, and the operation goes from break-even to becoming self-sufficient, it’s also good fiscal management.
“No other school is doing this, to my knowledge,” said superintendent Tom Anthony, who complimented Scimone for using early profits to pay for the interior’s new look.
Although 30 percent of the students who use the cafeteria qualify for free or reduced-price meals, the biggest increase in students who buy foods is in the “fully paid” lunch segment. Lunch costs $2.50; breakfast is $1.25.
Even the breakfast menu items are different. Donuts are made from low-fat ingredients and cooked in zero-trans-fat oil; chocolate chip muffins are a bit smaller but healthier and taste the same. These foods and breakfast burritos, for example, are no longer sold as individual items but come with milk and juice.
In addition to the change in the main cafeteria, the same healthy modifications affect the “A la Carts,” which offer snacks at certain times during the day at three locations on campus. Students use their ID cards for which meals have been prepaid to make purchases and can choose foods at breakfast or the nutrition break too, but not both.
Scimone takes compliments for his efforts in stride but is quick to praise the people who work for him. Coming from his background, he wasn’t sure how they would react, but they’ve adapted to his style with enthusiasm, he says. “I couldn’t do it without them.”