SAN FRANCISCO — Gone are the days of unpalatable school lunches, hospital meals and workplace cafeteria food as the brunt of jokes, and that’s fine with Steve Del Masso, vice president of San Leandro-based Bay Cities Produce Co.
The company has benefited from the evolution with its O-rganics line of produce as well as its specialty produce items and minimally processed products prepared in its own Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point-certified facilities.
The company has no problems making custom blends, such as for salads, and also offers kosher foods.
Many of the region’s hospitals have hired chefs to develop patient menus that not only meet dietary restrictions but also are tasty, he said.
“They’re changing it up every day, which is the fun part,” Del Masso said. “Some of these places say they need 180 pieces of fruit, and we’ll go out and sample the best peaches, the best nectarines and the best plums for them. They want fresh and they want local.”
Schools, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new meal requirements, also are seeking more produce items. Even with tight budgets, Del Masso said many Bay Area districts are still able to offer unusual fruits and vegetables.
“Some of these schools have great chefs and they put out meals and salad bars like you wouldn’t believe,” he said. “They’re offering the kids better meals than they would ever get at home.”
Bay Cities Produce has participated in pilot programs where representatives visit schools once per week and help educate kids about an unusual raw produce item.
One week it may be a new plum variety, another week it may be pomegranate arils.
“The school districts are into it, and they’re making it happen without a lot of help with their budgets,” he said.
At least a couple of the schools are extending their meal programs to parents’ back-to-school night.
“All of the parents are going to taste the plum that their kids had today,” Del Masso said. “They want to tie parents into this. The potential is just out of this world.”
Technology companies are using gourmet food as an employee perk and have hired leading chefs to prepare high-end meals served on their campuses.
“It’s become one of the ways they lure and keep some of the all-star programmers and other people at their companies,” said Karen Salinger, co-owner of Veritable Vegetable, a San Francisco-based organic wholesaler.
She said many of the large technology firms hire third parties, such as Sodexo, to operate their cafeterias and do the purchasing. But a few, including Airbnb, source directly from her because they want organic.
Del Masso said Bay Cities Produce also serves some of the larger Silicon Valley companies.
“I think they want to be green,” Del Masso said. “We’re a green-certified company, and most of those places buy from us because we’re over the top on food safety. They all want to be unique and also support local farms.”
Rather than talk in food miles, which can be complicated to determine and explain, Bay Cities Produce Co. has developed a map of California divided into three simple sourcing regions.
L1 is within a 180-mile radius of the Bay Area. L2 is from Fresno south to Bakersfield, and L3 is Bakersfield south to Mexico.
Del Masso said he also identifies the farms from which the items came. If a company wants to use produce from a specific farm and it doesn’t meet food safety requirements, Del Masso said Bay Cities Produce has a scholar program that helps growers develop food safety programs.