Background image of Lucy De Leon and her parents sitting at a table. Lucy is younger, wearing an embroidered floral shirt, similar to her mother's. Her father is wearing a crisp, white shirt.


Oregon schools get a
taste for local tamales

New connections bring Tortillería y Tienda De León’s legacy of traditional Mexican food to school lunch trays throughout Oregon

Lucy De León’s earliest food memory is waking well before dawn to help her mother, Francisca De León, make tamales and gorditas.

“We would get up at three in the morning so she could prepare food to sell to other people who worked in the fields,” Lucy says. “She would work in the fields and then, during lunchtime, she would take advantage of making extra money.”

For most of Lucy’s childhood, the entire De León family were seasonal farm laborers, traveling the nation, including Oregon, every year from Texas to work on contract with local farms. When she was 10, they decided to relocate to Oregon permanently, moving to Gresham.

At the time, the family would make the more than 80-mile round trip to Woodburn just to get fresh tortillas. And, even while making tamales and gorditas for her fellow farm workers, Francisca had always dreamed of running her own food business.

So, more than 20 years ago, the family opened Tortillería y Tienda De León’s. Now, the business supports up to 27 employees, and is a go-to lunch destination and catering service for the same delicious, authentic foods that Francisca and Lucy would make in the early morning hours.

“Before we would go out to the fields to work, I remember Mom getting her stuff ready and she would always say, ‘Someday we’re going to have this, we’re going to be selling our food.’ She was already speaking it, and here we are,” Lucy says.

Francisca passed down her drive to her daughter:

“She was a go-getter. I’m kind of the same way,” says Lucy. “I’ve been working since I was young. It’s in my veins. And when I get home, I’m still doing stuff. I never sit on the couch, I never watch TV. It’s just not me.”

Lucy’s drive led her to reach beyond the original location and start a wholesale branch of the De León business. In 2015, she began selling the family’s salsa (brand name Salsas Locas), among other prepared foods in grocery stores throughout the Portland metro area. In 2017, with her own kids in school, she added a new goal: that the same tamales that sustained her family in the fields would be served to Oregon students.

Local, delicious, familiar food

Recently in Oregon, a new high watermark was set for farm to school funding. With the passage of HB 2579, a record $15 million was allocated for farm to school activities in the state, including purchasing support for schools interested in working with Oregon food businesses and producers.

“With the expansion of Oregon’s Farm to School Program, we really need more resources to help producers and local food manufacturers enter the school marketplace.” — Amy Gilroy, ODA Farm to School Manager

Despite Oregon being a national leader in farm to school adoption, the business owners best suited and most interested in supplying schools often don’t know how to plug into the program. They may lack information about school food ingredient standards or not have a way to make connections with school nutrition staff in charge of purchasing.

But a unique support system of farm to school partners is beginning to form around these entrepreneurs, and connect schools with business owners that represent the races and cultures of the students they serve.

“I don’t think, given the complexity of the school meal program, any one of us can help companies through it alone,” says Amy Gilroy, Farm to School Manager at the Oregon Department of Agriculture. “Schools are required to offer products that meet federal nutrition standards, and often times those standards require a level of sophistication to understand. Smaller businesses and producers don’t often have the resources to navigate these requirements. With the expansion of Oregon’s Farm to School Program from $4.6 million to $15 million, we really need more resources to help producers and local food manufacturers enter the school marketplace.”

Co-located with Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center (FIC), Amy frequently helps these same businesses understand the regulatory requirements and access technical assistance needed to work with schools. She also helps school nutrition service directors connect with Oregon vendors.

“Especially in these times, I think it’s really important for kids to taste what other people eat.” — Lucy De León

“A lot of schools want to meet the cultural food needs of their student body population. And often times I’ll get requests to help them find those businesses in their community or point them in the right direction,” she says. “Local Link has been really helpful for bringing people together, for networking, for connecting, and then getting down to those technical details.”

Now in its fifth year, Local Link is a day-long event organized by Ecotrust that brings together a network of institutional buyers (like schools) and producers and businesses interested in selling to them. Last year’s Vendor Fair featured more than 40 vendors from across the local food spectrum—farmers, ranchers, fishermen, and prepared food businesses like the De León’s—all interested in building fruitful purchasing relationships. Ecotrust has made an intentional effort to recruit more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color)-owned, as well as women-owned companies, to participate in Local Link and sought to have products at the fair that represent the delicious spectrum of cultural foods across Oregon.

Case in point: the salsas and tamales of Tortillería y Tienda De León’s. While offering samples and making connections at the 2018 Local Link Vendor Fair, Lucy was presented with an opportunity she couldn’t refuse: Portland Public Schools had recently lost a vendor and needed to fill an order for tamales in a pinch.

With a firm vision of her tamales on school lunch plates, Lucy worked with Amy and the team at the FIC to develop a recipe that met school food requirements, and tasted delicious.

The first challenge was finding a whole grain masa.

“We didn’t really have a locally-manufactured, whole grain masa, which is also really difficult to work with,” Amy says. “What Lucy had to do was, with a more crumbly masa, form the tamale, but without adding a lot of fat or salt.”

Lucy recalled, “I had to send my Dad, who’s 79, all the way down to California to go bring two pallets of masa to get this order ready.” With masa at the ready, she devoted a week to creating several school lunch-ready, whole grain tamales, complete with fillings that would meet protein and vegetable requirements as well.

Then, it was time for production: “We did 15,000 tamales by hand for PPS. It took three days and my whole kitchen.”

Despite the challenges, for Lucy, the payoff is more than additional clientele for her family’s business.

“I’ve had friends of mine say, ‘Hey my kids had your tamales this week.’ And I’ve had so many emails from school lunch staff saying, ‘Oh, we loved the tamales!’ It just really touches me.”

Lucy’s school lunch-friendly tamales are a hit outside Portland, too, with schools in Beaverton, North Bend, and Umatilla placing orders.

Says Umatilla School District Child Nutrition Director, Rikkilynn Starliper: “I did a tasting with the four different kinds of tamales that Lucy offers and had the kids vote on their favorite ones. They absolutely love them. I’m planning on serving them every month and I’m pretty sure if I skipped a month, I would hear about it.”

More and more, school food is expanding beyond the lunchtime cafeteria, with many nutrition services departments offering three meals a day, snacks, and summer meal programs, too. In many cases, a meal at school may be the most reliable meal a student eats all day. And, while the economic and social injustices faced by children of color cannot be remedied by school food, serving culturally familiar meals can contribute to a sense of home and belonging.

“This was a dream for me,” Lucy says of having her tamales served in schools. “Especially in these times, I think it’s really important for kids to taste what other people eat. And, for the kids who are in our culture, you’re just happier eating something that you grew up with.”

Top photo caption: Lucy De León with her parents, Francisca and Anselmo De León.