When Child Nutrition Director Scott Soiseth first took the helm of Turlock Unified School District’s food services in 1998, pizza pockets, soda and chips were mainstays on the lunch menu. Thanks to his efforts since then, students are now energized by healthy meals that are fresh and locally grown — a complete cuisine overhaul that Soiseth looks back on as his finest achievement ahead of his retirement later this month.
“It’s just the right time,” Soiseth said. “It’s not a simple answer, because I’m leaving behind great people and a great program. But when you feel it’s time, you’ve just gotta do it.”
Soiseth forged an unconventional path to his current position, first joining TUSD in 1993 as a custodian at Wakefield Elementary School. He got the job a year after he sold his former restaurant, The Red Steer, with plans to never work in food service again. Fate had other ideas, however, as he soon worked his way up to lead custodian at Turlock High School.
About two years after Soiseth came on the scene at THS, the school’s cafeteria food service program found itself in dire straits. TUSD was aware of his experience as a restaurateur, he said, and implored him to join as an assistant lead in the cafeteria. Within three months, he was overseeing all food operations at the high school level and the program was no longer in deficit spending.
“I went in and turned that program around within a year,” Soiseth said.
A few years later, Soiseth was responsible for the creation of his own position when the food services director at the elementary school level turned in her letter of resignation. He was willing to oversee the entire district and all of its campuses instead of being responsible for just high school nutrition, and TUSD believed he could.
While earning the title of Child Nutrition Director wasn’t Soiseth’s ultimate goal when he first started with TUSD, his impact was felt in more ways than one during his tenure.
“A lot of people don’t know that story...my wife always says people think I just arrived, but no. We really went through some changes and difficult times for me to get to this position,” Soiseth said.
Four or five years into serving within his new role, Soiseth noticed the poor quality of the food students ate. Obesity levels were soaring and students were having difficulty paying attention in class.
“I thought, ‘We can’t keep doing this over and over again to the children,” he said.
In 2006, the ‘real.fresh’ brand was born. It was Soiseth’s goal to steer away from the stereotypical school lunch and instead provide meals sourced from local growers. Gone were the days of junk food and in swept colorful, healthy meals consisting of products like rotisserie chicken, wholesome salads and plenty of fruits and veggies.
“As I learned more about nutrition and I learned about the effects of what we feed them, I decided that since we have these children for two meals every day for 180 days if they’re not getting it at home, they’re going to get it here,” Soiseth said.
The benefits revealed themselves almost immediately, he added, with classroom participation levels improving by a whopping 300 percent. Years later, other schools throughout the country followed suit when the Obama administration rolled out regulations to improve cafeteria nutrition. Soiseth also impacted countless districts throughout the state, traveling as an ambassador for the California Department of Education to spread the word about real.fresh.
“We were way ahead of the game,” Soiseth said.
He helped TUSD food services fast forward even further into the future some years later, when the new, state-of-the-art Child Nutrition Education Center opened in 2018. Soiseth played an integral part in the years-long process to bring a new center to the district, locating a facility to move into, overseeing its construction and even working with architects to design the building’s interior and exterior. The space allows TUSD to serve fresher products at a larger volume and today provides meals for five other districts in the area, including Keyes Union School District.
“They gave me total control and it allowed us to create what we needed,” he said.
Throughout the changes he’s helped bring to TUSD’s meals over the years, there’s one thing that’s stood out to Soiseth as the most memorable part of his career: the people.
“It’s the people — my employees and the children...my employees are certainly my greatest achievement and there’s nothing greater than to be able to go out to the sites and eat with the children,” Soiseth said. “It’s just food, but it’s such an intricate part of their day and their lives. Watching them try new things and watching them enjoy the fruits and vegetables probably is one of our greatest accomplishments.”
In his retirement, Soiseth plans to continue farming the 50 acres of almonds that formerly kept him busy after long days of work for TUSD. Now, he’ll be shaking trees and irrigating his crops during the day, rather than after hours. During Tuesday’s TUSD Board of Trustees meeting, Manteca Unified School District registered dietician Jennifer Lew-Vang was appointed as Soiseth’s successor, and he left her with some words of advice.
“Stay the course,” he said. “I’m leaving behind a very good program but not a perfect program. There’s room for change, so just take a look at it and go off of what you have.”