Three ingredients travel across the country
on December 8, 2009
A container of pasta. A 10-pound tube of ground turkey. A can of tomato sauce. It was a Monday in November at a central kitchen in East Oakland and dozens of cardboard boxes were being unloaded, revealing the three main ingredients for a pasta and meat-sauce dish that would be served to elementary school kids in the Oakland Unified School District that Thursday.
In a matter of hours, stainless steel racks filled with clumps of pasta, each in open-faced cardboard cartons individually wrapped in plastic, were pushed into a walk-in refrigerator. There was no time to waste at a site that produces tens of thousands of meals for elementary school kids; this kitchen, located on the PLACE @ Prescott Elementary School campus, is one of three that serve the entire district. Once the pasta entree was complete, the kitchen staff methodically turned to the next task at hand. The clumps would sit in the walk-in refrigerator overnight before being driven to one of the 62 schools that rely on an OUSD central kitchen for their daily supply of food.
Assembling that pasta entree, before it reaches the stomach of an Oakland school kid, is the last and relatively shortest step in its production process. The story behind its three main ingredients started long before that November day and thousands of miles away from that Oakland kitchen.
A wheat field in North Dakota, a turkey ranch in the Central Valley, a tomato field somewhere south of Oregon and north of Mexico in California: those were the starting points for this meal. This is how it all ended up in Oakland.
The wheat most likely grew in a field somewhere in North Dakota several years ago, according to Bill Stabert, a sales representative at the Philadelphia Macaroni Company, which made the pasta used in the lunch. If it wasn’t North Dakota, Stabert said, it was one of the north central states in the U.S. or in neighboring regions of Canada.
The wheat was harvested in late summer and poured into a grain elevator. Minot Milling, which is contracted through the Philadelphia Macaroni Company, bought and milled the wheat at the company’s facility in Minot, North Dakota. The miller then shipped the grain to one of the Philadelphia Macaroni Company’s sites in Washington, Pennsylvania or North Dakota—most likely at the North Dakota plant in Grand Forks—which turned the grain into pasta using raw materials, like riboflavin, silicon dioxide and folic acid, which came from as far away as China, India and Belgium, according to Linda Schalles, Strategic Communication Manager at the Philadelphia Macaroni Company.
Bernard Food Industries had the rippled-edge pasta shipped to its canning plant in Evanston, Illinois. The raw pasta was mixed with spices, sealed into a can while still dry, and labeled “Bernard’s Kwik-Dish Lasagna Dinner Mix,” with instructions on how to add the other ingredients needed to produce the dish advertised on the front.
Jennifer LeBarre, Nutrition Services director at the Oakland Unified School District, then ordered the dry canned pasta from Bernard Food Industries in January and 49 cases were shipped from Illinois to Oakland in February. LeBarre does not normally order food for the central kitchens, but in this case, “when we can get a better deal by going directly to the vendor than we are going to do that,” LeBarre said.
According to a representative at Sysco, who declined to speak on the record, the company’s contract with Bernard Food Industries ended over two years ago, so the product was not available for sale through the district’s main distributor. LeBarre said Sysco provides nearly all the district’s food, excluding milk and fresh fruit.
Somewhere in the Central Valley, Foster Farms raised the birds that became lunch on November 12. Ira Brill, the company’s marketing and advertising director, declined to give the specific locations for the company’s turkey ranches and to disclose the methods used in preparing the ground turkey, but said the company’s poultry producers treat their birds humanely. “Regarding bird abuse,” he said, “we take it seriously because consumers take it seriously.”
According to Brill, once the turkeys are slaughtered, they are processed into bulk ground turkey at a plant in Turlock, California, and packaged in unmarked 10-pound plastic cylindrical tubes that are cinched at the ends with metal clasps.
Sysco Corporation, the largest food distribution company in North America, bought the turkey tubes in bulk and shipped them to a storing facility in Fremont, California, where they were kept until Margaret Phillips, a kitchen manager in the Oakland schools’ nutrition services department, called and placed an order for them.
The Tomato Paste
The trail of the tomato paste is much harder to follow. The tomato paste OUSD used that day was produced by Hunt’s, which is owned by ConAgra Foods. ConAgra contracts growers in California who supply the tomatoes used in Hunt’s products, but a ConAgra spokesperson declined to specify where in the state they are grown.
The tomato paste used for this school lunch came in large aluminum cans. The ingredients on the label included salt, spices, natural flavors and citric acid, but ConAgra’s spokesperson called the specifics of the natural flavorings and spices “proprietary information.”
Sysco bought the tomato paste and had it delivered to its facility in Fremont. The paste was then ordered by Phillips and delivered to a kitchen for meal preparation.
The meal that was prepared on Monday, November 9 from these ingredients is what the OUSD considers a “scratch meal,” meaning it was not brought to one of the central kitchens prepackaged. The entire meal also included a plastic bowl of shredded iceberg lettuce with a single-sized serving of ranch dressing, a banana and a carton of low-fat milk. When the kids at Hoover Elementary School were served the meal on Thursday, November 12, the lasagna—reheated in its cardboard bowl and plastic wrap in a rack oven onsite—was one of three entrées that day, of which the students were allowed to choose one. The other lunch entrees included a container of strawberry yogurt and a grilled cheese sandwich that arrived at schools prepackaged in plastic and was then heated in a rack oven, like the pasta with meat sauce dish.
Actually it was pasta with turkey sauce. But “meat sauce” is what the lunch menu called it. ” The recipe calls for turkey meat. It’s just one of those things, it just never occurred to us to call it something else,” LeBarre said.
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