Dozens of school cooks and support staff gathered on Monday at Goleta Valley Junior High to learn plant-based recipes from Eddie Garza, a Miami-based celebrity chef and cookbook author focused on reforming food systems in Latino communities. As a schoolteacher in his early twenties, Garza maxed out at 310 pounds. When a colleague told him frankly, “You have to lose weight or you’re going to die,” he took the first step of a five-year slimdown to 155, crediting his turnaround to phasing out unhealthy, processed foods and replacing them with more vegetables, fruits, legumes, and grains.
Since becoming the director of Food Services at Santa Barbara Unified School District back in 2007, Nancy Weiss — now in charge of 11 fully equipped campus kitchens and seven food trucks — has rolled out a similar healthful approach by sourcing produce from area farmers and preparing mostly from scratch about 9,000 school meals daily. Weiss’s latest push integrates more plant-based protein, sourced from Hungry Planet, into dishes derived traditionally from beef.
After introductions in Spanish and English, Garza — who’s also a senior food and nutrition manager for the Humane Society of the United States — opened by whipping up a nacho sauce from blended potatoes, carrots, onion, garlic, fresh lemon juice, olive oil, and a pinch of cayenne, and thickened with a nutritional yeast loaded with protein and B vitamins. For lactose-intolerant kids who can get bogged down by cheese-based nachos, Weiss pointed out, “This is a blend of veggies that makes you feel better on the other side.” Food Services staff also learned to prepare Garza’s veggie version of street tacos and dishes of roasted corn and kale designed to persuade the picky palates common in any school cafeteria. “It got a little chaotic as we broke into groups to prepare [Garza’s recipes],” Weiss said, “but it spilled over into an amazing buffet of plant-based food. Everybody was upbeat to learn something new.”