SANTA ANA, Calif. — The Biden administration is prioritizing food for students, pushing to expand free school meals as part of a new national strategy to end hunger and increase healthy eating by 2030, while groceries keep getting more expensive.

What You Need To Know

  • The Biden administration is prioritizing food for students as part of a new national strategy to end hunger and increase healthy eating

  • The Santa Ana Unified School District is in the middle of a concerted effort to cook student meals from scratch

  • To do this, food workers are taking classes on cooking basics

  • Cooking from scratch is an investment of both time and money in the short term

As Spectrum News has reported, the work to improve school lunches is already well underway in Orange County.

Gloria Torres cooks for her kids, her grandkids and thousands of students every day.

“In our culture, like my culture, I love to cook. I have three girls and a boy and they all love to cook. I started teaching them since they were little,” Gloria Torres said.

The wisdom she’s passing on stems from her Mexican roots as well as the decades she’s spent at the Santa Ana Unified School District, working her way up to nutrition services supervisor at Saddleback High School.

Torres is taking a weekly class for the food workers in the district after her regular work on Tuesdays. They’re learning — or relearning — how to cook. Sounds counterintuitive, but for many years, all lunches were prepared off-site and frozen. Now they’re shifting away from that into cooking from scratch, which requires new skills, new equipment and new hires.

Executive chef Jennifer Minichiello is one of a few fresh faces in the district. She teaches the classes and is employed by both the district and Santa Ana College.

“It’s just exciting to see them learn how to cook," Minichiello said. "A lot of kids aren’t learning that anymore. They’re not learning it at school. They’re not learning it at home so a lot of it is, ‘Oh, I can just have it delivered to my door.’ You can have DoorDash deliver anything at this point and I think that’s pretty sad.”

Cooking from scratch is quite an investment of both time and money in the short term. Yet there’s the tantalizing promise of a tastier menu that can quickly adjust as wildfires and record drought impact crops, and schools deal with supply chain issues and inflation.

“I thought it was never going to happen, but when I hear that it was going to happen, you know I said, 'This is great,'” Torres said.

As recipes develop, there’s an opportunity to provide options that taste like food students and employees eat at home.

“I feel like I’m preparing the food for my own kids,” Torres said.

This transition has enabled cultural, nutritional, and environmental changes to the menu. The district instituted plant-based Wednesdays, going meatless once a week. Earlier this year, California became the first state to financially support plant-based school meals.