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UC Merced Chef Santiago Wins International Food Service Award

June 21, 2024
Chef Santiago (center) with Rosa and Filimon Regalado from World's Finest Farms

An international organization recognized UC Merced Executive Sous Chef Jonathan Gutierrez Santiago for his commitment to innovative and sustainable use of fresh produce for the university’s Dining Services.

Santiago won the 2024 Produce Excellence in Foodservice Award for Colleges and Universities, given by the International Fresh Produce Association (IFPA). The award honors chefs and other food service professionals for their commitment to providing fresh produce in their dining operations. Nominees are judged on creative menu design, knowledge and use of proper produce handling procedures, community engagement efforts and individual accolades.

This award highlights Santiago’s impressive contributions to Dining Services and the Yablokoff-Wallace Dining Center. Since joining UC Merced nearly three years ago, he has spearheaded projects such as the BIPOC Produce Buying Program. Since August 2023, 97% of produce purchases supported families and growers within 150 miles of campus. According to a report last fall, 12 of the participating growers identified as Black, indigenous or people of color; seven operations were owned by women.

Santiago also led an “ugly produce” initiative designed to limit food waste. He has created delicious recipes that use bruised and blemished fruits and vegetables that normally would be unharvested or unsold.

He also has used such culinary practices such as dehydration, fermentation and pickling to extend the shelf life of produce and create homemade, veggie-based powders, kimchi and sauerkraut.

“This award is a perfect culmination of the work we have done in the past year to reshape Dining Services,” Santiago said. “We believe in providing the best dining service possible, all while nourishing our students. This means providing them with the best quality fruits, vegetables and proteins.”

Santiago and Dining Services, in partnership with the Associated Students of UC Merced and the university’s Basic Needs Center, held an inaugural farmers market last spring. Nearly 600 students and staff participated. Since fall 2023, Dining Services has donated over 2,000 pounds of fresh organic produce to Basic Needs and the Bobcat Pantry. Santiago continues to educate the campus community about organic produce and limiting food waste by hosting live cooking demonstrations for students.

Santiago will be honored on July 25 at IFPA’s Foodservice Conference in Monterey.