Giving students a better school lunch

(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The people making lunch in this big commercial kitchen are pros; some of them serve thousands of diners a day. But they’re not all comfortable using a knife to peel a butternut squash or chop fresh parsley.

School lunch: An article in the Aug. 26 Food section quoted Liz Powell, director of food services for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, as saying that buying 80% of its produce locally had added to food costs. After publication, Powell said the costs had actually gone down, with one analysis showing a $3,000 savings over four months. —

They work in school cafeterias, “lunch ladies” who are not all women and who would like to be seen more as lunch teachers contributing to the overall education of the children who eat their food.

They have been trained in food safety but not always in cooking. Too often, they say, their job has been to heat frozen chicken nuggets or packaged burritos, or to distribute canned fruit, sometimes to the children of people growing and picking fresh produce.

So two dozen cafeteria employees from Santa Barbara County schools are spending a week this summer in a culinary boot camp, learning to cook pork roasts and chicken, vegetables and casseroles they can serve in their schools — food that tastes good, comes in under budget and meets federal requirements.


The boot camp “drill sergeants” — Cook for America founders Andrea Martin and Kate Adamick — also discuss politics and child psychology, nutrition and marketing. They teach time management, culinary math, knife skills, the history of school food and menu planning. Get rid of flavored milk and stop serving cinnamon rolls for breakfast, they say.

“I’m totally impressed,” says Cathy Kelly, one of the people taking part in the boot camp in a central kitchen of the Santa Maria-Bonita School District.

Kelly, who works in the Lompoc Unified School District, and her colleague Debbie Frank say their secondary schools are cooking food from scratch but the elementary schools need more kitchen equipment. Much of the food comes frozen and is reheated, including pizzas and burritos, Kelly says.

“It’s pretty bad when we don’t want to eat it,” Kelly says. “When our hamburgers come, I can’t stand the smell. I would like to serve something I’m proud of.”

The boot camp is one of several efforts around the country to get more produce and whole grains and more freshly cooked food onto school lunch trays.

Recommendations issued last fall by an Institute of Medicine panel included calorie limits to school meals for the first time, as well as more produce and legumes and less sodium. Nationally, more than 30 million children take part in the National School Lunch Program, and schools get about $2.70 for each lunch served to children who meet thresholds for free meals.

Adamick says she was motivated to take on school food as a writer and consultant by what she learned about obesity and diseases such as the sort of diabetes that once was called adult-onset and “was a consequence of the aging process. Now I’ve seen a 9-year-old on dialysis.”

The boot camp alternates between classroom time and kitchen time. There’s none of the rancor found in the reality TV show, " Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution,” when the British chef set out to reform the school meals in Huntington, W. Va.

Adamick, a chef and lawyer, and Martin, a former New York City schoolteacher and chef, have held their Cook for America boot camps since 2006, training 400 or 500 “lunch teachers” in California, Colorado and elsewhere, Adamick says.

In advance of the Santa Maria camp, Adamick had visited county schools, taking photos to get the lay of the land. The resulting slide show elicits plenty of knowing chatter.

One slide shows a Pepsi dispenser with Pepsi cups. Wait a minute: Hasn’t soda mostly been outlawed in California schools?

“California state law doesn’t say you can’t have Pepsi cups or Pepsi scoreboards or Pepsi dispensers,” even if the liquid is tea or lemonade, Adamick says.

She also found cookies twice as big as her hand, doughnuts and packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. “They have dumbed this down so much that we can’t even make our own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” Adamick says.

And then there’s the boogeyman for school food reformers: chicken nuggets.

“Does anybody know what’s in a chicken nugget? Does anybody know how chicken nuggets are made?” Adamick asks, showing another slide, this one with an extruded pile of pink stuff that looks a little like strawberry frozen yogurt but which she says is going to become nuggets.

Another slide shows a meal of corn chips with cheese sauce, French fries and refried beans. “Do I really want to pay for this?” she asks.

In the kitchen, basics are on the syllabus: Dry heat (baking) versus moist heat (poaching), for instance. And ways not to cook (frying).

Efficiency is essential. The students, all dressed in white chef’s jackets and black and white striped caps, line chicken parts on sheet trays knowing exactly how many pieces are on each pan (42 wings, 20 breasts or 24 thighs), so in the rush of lunch they can count pans, not parts. Pasta is cooked al dente, drained, tossed with oil and spread on a sheet pan to freeze for the next day.

In addition to per-meal reimbursements, schools can get nearly free food from the government, including raw chicken, turkey, beef and pork. Many districts, Adamick says, “take their free chicken and send it to Tyson and pay them to turn it into nuggets. That makes no sense.”

In Martin’s kitchen, pork gets roasted, made into a rice bowl or barbecued. Chicken gets roasted with herbs or marinated in a sauce.

Many schools shy away from handling raw meat because of worries about food safety. In boot camp, there are constant reminders about safe handling of food and little sanitizing buckets everywhere.

But, Martin says, making food safe isn’t enough.

“We can’t expect kids to try things that they don’t normally eat if you don’t prep them in a way that they have visual appeal,” she says.

One day, she holds a red plastic cafeteria tray with three rows, each containing yellow wax beans, broccoli and carrots sliced on the diagonal — all school salad bar ingredients. The first row is marked raw, the second and most appealing marked blanched and the third, with overcooked, grayish vegetables marked R.I.P.

“If you’re putting out R.I.P. anywhere in your operation and you’re saying kids won’t eat it,” Martin says, pausing before adding: “My dog wouldn’t eat it.”

Adamick also is a money hunter. Plastic cups for holding a piece of cake? Nine cents apiece. Dried beans are cheaper than canned, and they save the effort of opening and disposing of the cans. Corn dogs, French fries? Stop paying for the processing.

In Santa Barbara County, the Orfalea Fund, a foundation based in Santa Barbara that supports the boot camps and provides follow-up training once the staff returns to their schools, as well as grants for equipment such as huge immersion blenders.

The Santa Maria-Bonita School District has sent more than two dozen of its staff members to the boot camps and has started making salad dressings and sauces from scratch and roasting fresh vegetables, says Liz Powell, food services director. Since the boot camp, she has also switched to brown rice from white. The district, which feeds 16,000 children, makes its own pizza.

Santa Maria now buys 80% of its produce locally, Powell says. That’s added to food costs, “but not by anything outrageous.”

Other districts in the county are making changes too.

Kristie Barrios, from Alvin Elementary School, and Trudy Mendiola, from El Camino Junior High, say their schools have stopped serving French fries and instead offer baked sweet potato “fries” — which, they admit, the children take some time getting used to.

But Adamick tells them not to give in to parents or officials who argue for school food that mimics what they buy in fast food outlets — even if the kids say that’s what they want. “It doesn’t mean your food isn’t good,” she says. “It’s their learning process.”