It once was a given that the lunchroom lady got to work early and sweated over hot ovens until the kids came streaming in for lunch. That paradigm went the way of the victory garden until it became a given that school food was almost inedible with pretend chicken nuggets and bright yellow macaroni and cheese.
Today, the lunchroom lady… and gentleman are back, cooking real food for real kids who just might be able to function better as a result.
Wednesday, The New York Times ran a major feature on how the Greeley school district has fully embraced the real food movement, even hiring an executive chef from the Culinary Institute of America.
But Greeley is not alone. Boulder Valley Schools have such real food that they even have a catering department where you can order food for your next event. This Friday, there will be a fundraiser with such musical guests as Todd Park Mohr and Mollie O’Brien to raise money for the Boulder Schools food program.
Denver, too, has cooks wandering outside to pluck fresh foods from school gardens. “We’re doing a lot of scratch cooking and using produce from school gardens in our cafeterias,” notes district spokesperson Michael Vaughn.
Last year, in fact, Denver brought in professional chefs to teach district chefs the art of scratch cooking.
So far, the district has been able to use about 1200 pounds a year of school grown produce, which may not make much of a dent in the total produce budget but no doubt helps a lot of kids make the connection between growing vegetables and eating lunch.
The district’s web site sets an ambitious goal for Denver school cafeterias:
DPS’s Nutrition Department is going back to the basics by offering meals entirely from scratch this upcoming school year. The H4 plan, (Healthy Meals, Healthy Kids, Healthy Community, Healthy Planet) will impact 30 DPS schools for the 2010-2011 school year.
That number is expected to grow gradually—the district plans on reducing the number of processed foods in the lunchroom and replacing them with items from scratch. By the end of year three, the goal is to have every school in DPS be fully equipped with the staff and ingredients to be considered a scratch-cooking school.
“We think it matters what kids eat at school,” Theresa Hafner, executive director of enterprise management for DPS, told The Colorado Independent. While that title is a mouthful, among other things she oversees food services.
“Eating better, more nutritious food helps kids learn and sets them up better for the future,” Hafner said. She added that the district today is using less sugar and less ingredients generally in their prepared foods.
Greeley–The idea of making school lunches better and healthier has gathered steam in many parts of the nation in recent years, but not equally for every child. Schools with money and involved parents concerned about obesity and nutrition charged ahead, while poor and struggling districts, overwhelmed by hard times, mostly did not.
This midsize city in northern Colorado, where 60 percent of the 19,500 students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, is trying to break the mold. When classes start on Thursday, the district will make a great leap forward — and at the same time back to the way it was done a generation ago — in cooking meals from scratch.
Factory food took over most American schools in a rolling, greasy wave of chicken nuggets and pre-prepped everything over the last few decades. Now, real ingredients and spices like cumin and garlic — and in a modern twist, fiber-laden carrots snuck in where children do not expect them, like pasta sauce — are making their return to the cafeteria tray.
Getting ready for that counterrevolution here in Greeley involved a weeklong boot camp to relearn forgotten arts like kitchen math — projecting ingredients to scale when making, say, 300 pans of lasagna, which cooks were doing this week — and to brush up on safe cooking temperatures for meat.
“It shows it’s not just for the elite,” said Jeremy West, the nutrition services director for Weld County District 6.
Greeley’s schools will be cooking from scratch about 75 percent of the time on the opening day, with a goal of reaching 100 percent by this time next year, when ovens and dough mixers for whole wheat pizza crust will be up and running. But already, the number of ingredients in an average meal — not to mention the ones that sound like they came from chemistry class — is plummeting.
Consider the bean burrito: last year, in arriving from the factory wrapped in cellophane, each one had more than 35 ingredients, including things like potassium citrate and zinc oxide. This year: 12, including real cheddar cheese. Italian salad dressing went from 19 ingredients to 9, with sodium reduced by almost three-fourths and sugar — the fourth ingredient in the factory blend — eliminated entirely.
“The biggest myth is that it costs more money,” said Kate Adamick, a food consultant based in New York and co-founder of Cook for America. She said federal reimbursement rules could actually give poorer school systems some advantages in shifting back to scratch, especially for meat, which many districts buy with deep discounts. Cooking the meat themselves, rather than paying a processor, can drastically reduce total costs, she said.
Meanwhile, the district’s first executive chef, George Coates III, who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked in high-end restaurants in Arizona and elsewhere, is plotting a food revolution. Mr. Coates, known in the kitchen as Chef Boomer, said he envisioned good food not just taking over the schools here in Greeley, but also eventually filtering back into homes, reconnecting parents with cooking through a system of recipe sharing — especially if, as he hopes, children go home and talk about the good food they are getting on his watch.