New School Lunch: From Mystery Meat to Organic Produce

By Sharon Salomon MS, RD / Photography By Heather Gill | May 15, 2011
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Sliced apples

In my day, it was "mystery meat." I'd go through the lunch line with my friends, stopping to stare at the unrecognizable offerings on the steam table.

"What's for lunch?" my friends and I would ask.

"Meat," the server would say.

"What kind of meat?"

The response: "Meat."

We called it "mystery meat" because no one ever identified its origins. So we moved on down the line, grabbed a piece of pie or cake and a soda, sat down to eat and gossiped until it was time to go to class. That was lunch.

Our parents didn't complain. I don't even know if they had any idea what was being served or what we were eating for lunch.

Some years later, maybe as we Americans became more knowledgeable about the relationship of food and health, parents started to become more involved with what was being served at school. Remember the uproar over ketchup being classified as a vegetable for school lunch?

The days of mystery meat and ketchup as veggie are long gone. Parents, teachers and even the President's wife are now involved in making healthy school food a priority.

If you're a parent, you've probably heard your child complain about the food in the cafeteria. Even if the food is pretty good, kids will most likely complain about it. In many cases, however, the food is not particularly tasty.

Maybe you've been working with other parents to make the food healthier and more palatable. Displeasure with what's served and how the food tastes is not a new problem but there are some exciting initiatives that should make you hopeful that things will improve soon.

Watermelon radish
Watermelon radish

New Guidelines, Old Challenges

A 2009 report from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended that school lunch offerings more strongly align with Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The recommendations were to increase the amounts of fruits, vegetables and whole grains served to students.

The IOM research showed that the typical high school lunch might contain up to 1,600 milligrams of sodium. That's the maximum now recommended for a full day's intake.

One of the more far-reaching suggestions was that schools should plan weekly menus around foods and not just around nutrients. Many of the current national and local guidelines recommend certain nutrients be included in the meals served in schools, but not specific foods. The IOM believes that if menus were planned around more healthful foods rather than individual nutrients, students would be eating a healthier meal. If the menus included fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, then the nutrients would be there.

Ann Cooper, also known as the Renegade Lunch Lady, has been an outspoken advocate for improving the food served to children at school.

"We are killing our kids with food, and we have to do it differently," Cooper has said.

The argument for offering foods similar to what kids eat at fast food restaurants is that they won't eat more healthful foods and prefer foods that are familiar to them, like pizza and chicken nuggets. Cooper's response is that adults don't let kids "decide" if they're going to use drugs or skip school so why should adults let kids decide what they're going to be served in school.

Her focus is to get schools to transition from processed foods to whole foods with foods being procured regionally and cooked from scratch. Kind of sounds a bit like your favorite local restaurant, doesn't it?

Is that farfetched? Can we afford to feed our kids locally grown organic food? Are the school kitchens staffed with skilled employees capable of producing meals from scratch? And are the school kitchens equipped to do it?

When asked what she would do if money and staffing were not an issue, Linda Rider, director of nutritional services for Tempe School District 3, exclaimed, "What a question! If I could I would equip each kitchen for full-blown scratch cooking. I would have fresh local organic vegetables with every dish. I'd hire someone to help me find a way to merge the adult taste concept of Essence Cafe/Wildflower Cafe [local restaurants that Rider admires] into a student-acceptable menu along with more traditional dishes and ethnic dishes. And I'd provide training to all our staff on quality scratch cooking. And if money were no object, I could also afford an extensive marketing and nutrition education campaign to introduce the new foods to the kids in a way that would get them interested in eating them."

Just as you would expect, it's money and staffing that often interfere with providing the kind of meals we want our kids to eat in school.

Chefs Move to Schools

First Lady Michelle Obama to the rescue. The First Lady conceived the programs Let's Move and Chefs Move to Schools to help get schools on track to serving more nutritious food to students.

The Chefs Move to Schools initiative (approximately 2,000 chefs across the country have signed up to participate) is run through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). After signing up, chefs adopt a school of their choice and work with teachers, parents, school nutritionists and administrators to help educate children and show that eating healthfully can be fun and delicious.

Having world-famous chefs prepare meals for students using ingredients and equipment not readily available to school food service because of price constraints may not be the ultimate solution, but it is a beginning. For those who think that kids won't eat "healthy" or unfamiliar foods, the following local examples should persuade you otherwise.

One chef "adoption" has worked out splendidly for the students at Pueblo del Sol Middle School in Phoenix.

Janine Menard, a school counselor at Pueblo del Sol, was instrumental in getting her school hooked up with Chef Paul Carter from the Phoenician Resort. She saw Chef Carter on TV when he visited the White House during First Lady Obama's introduction of the Chefs Move to Schools program and asked him to participate. Carter has been visiting the school monthly since November, doing cooking demos and tastings in classrooms.

Chef Carter has demonstrated how easy it is to prepare modified "fast food" at home, offering tips on making the kids' fast food favorites healthier. Carter showed them how to take the typical burger, fries and shake meal and make it healthier by offering turkey sliders, sweet potato fries and smoothies.

The kids get to take home the recipes and the newfound cooking knowledge. Menard doesn't know whether the students put their knowledge to work at home or not. But at least young students are being introduced to new foods and new ideas about how to eat healthier fare. The chef is expanding their food horizons for sure.

Chef-owner Charleen Badman and co-owner Pavle Milic, from FnB Restaurant in Scottsdale

Chef Badman Steps Up

Some local chefs have done similar projects on their own without registering with Chefs Move to Schools.

A few weeks ago, I witnessed the kind of excitement in a school cafeteria that rivals what you'd expect if Justin Bieber were to show up.

The kids filed into the cafeteria smiling and enthusiastic because they knew it was a special day: Chef-owner Charleen Badman and co-owner Pavle Milic, from FnB Restaurant in Scottsdale, were there to cook and serve lunch for the 525 students and staff at the school.

Several weeks earlier, while dining at FnB, Taylor Jones, an assistant principal at Arcadia Learning Center in Scottsdale, asked Chef Badman if she'd be interested in coming to the school to do a cooking demo. Badman loved the idea and so enjoyed her first encounter with the students that she offered to cook lunch for everyone at the school.

The kitchen at the school will soon undergo a renovation but currently is small and has only ovens, so most of the food arrives already cooked or frozen and is reheated at the school. Obviously that limits the offerings. Imelda Ortiz, kitchen manager, does the best she can with the equipment she has, but most lunches consist of sandwiches, salads, chicken nuggets, etc.

Badman and Milic arrived early in the morning loaded down with both cooked food and raw ingredients. When I got to the school, volunteers were busy slicing locally grown organic oranges and apples and vegetables from Bob McClendon's farm. Chef Badman had already prepared the hot portion of the meal at the restaurant.

Badman treated the students to roasted Jidori chicken, cauliflower in bechamel and beanie weenies made with Schreiner's sausages and pinto beans, all cooked from scratch. Marsha McClendon was on hand to help with the salad bar, stocked with her farm's freshest just-picked vegetables including intriguingly beautiful watermelon radishes and purple carrots.

The kids were ecstatic. The teachers had prepared them for the special experience and they were eager and willing to try the food.

For me, the best part was eavesdropping on their conversations. Here are some of the comments I overheard:

"It doesn't suck as much as much as the food usually does."

"These people are for real about cooking."

"This tastes like actual food."

"This is what a real meal should look like."

Chefs Badman and Carter's efforts are not the ultimate solution for school lunch, but they demonstrate to officials that students are receptive to new foods and that more can be done with the equipment at hand.

As Taylor says, "Charleen is our fairy godmother. She's helping the kids to learn to eat fresh and not processed foods."

Find it

5th Ave. + Craftsman Ct. 7125 E. 5th Ave. Suite 31
Scottsdale, AZ 85251
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