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Helping School Cafeterias To Serve Home-Style Lunches


Some children who return to school this fall will find something new in their cafeterias: home-style lunches. While the majority of school children will face highly processed or pre-made foods laden with fat and preservatives, a number of school districts are fighting childhood obesity and improving the nutritional value of the school lunch.

Lunches prepared from scratch in school cafeterias

Given that most school districts are living with budget cuts, the presence of outdated kitchen equipment, and a large number of children who need to be fed, preparing meals from scratch is a formidable challenge. Helping take much of the angst out of the recipe is Cook for America, a novel model program whose motto is “School food is the solution, not the problem!”

Unlike other school food reform programs, Cook for America stresses a holistic approach in helping schools and those who prepare the food to learn how to make healthy meals from scratch using fresh, whole ingredients in the fight against childhood obesity and other illnesses related to diet. One way Cook for America helps schools take this step is through its boot camp.

The Lunch Teachers™ Culinary Boot Camps are a five-day program for school food service personnel and support staff, where they learn food safety and preparation basics, time management skills, menu planning, and specific techniques in the preparation of fresh, nutritious foods.

How do you get children to eat more vegetables? According to a PBS Newshour report on Cook for America, one thing the food service personnel learn is “how to make a spaghetti sauce and put carrots and celery and onions and zucchini, and we blend it up, and it is still fabulous red sauce,” according to Lisa Samuel, a cook for Rangeview High School in Aurora, Colorado.

Samuel is just one of hundreds of food service personnel who have attended the boot camp program, where they also learn confidence, motivation, and greater awareness. According to Cook for America, graduates of the camp “are recognized as culinary ambassadors who lead the school food reform in their own districts.” The program helps “to increase the level of self-respect among school food service workers.”

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Thus far, about 100 school districts across the United States have participated with Cook for America to bring the reality of home-cooked school lunches to their students. More than half of the schools are in Colorado, which also happens to have the lowest rate of obesity in the United States.

But schools in other states are also joining the movement. In California, for example, cafeteria workers in Santa Barbara County schools attended the boot camp, learning to prepare vegetables, roasts, and other good-tasting foods that meet federal requirements and come in under budget.

Budget and costs are a big concern when it comes to making the switch to home-style cafeteria food, and Cook for America helps tackle that problem as well. The program’s co-founder Kate Adamick runs “Lunch Money” workshops to help schools learn how to cut costs and increase revenues by restricting their ordering practices, improving participation in school breakfasts, and learning new ways to save money.

Adamick noted in a New York Times article that “the biggest myth is that it costs more money” to serve school children home-style meals. She explained that federal reimbursement regulations could provide less affluent school districts some advantages; for example, with meat, which the school personnel could cook themselves instead of paying a processor, thus saving money.

The big winners in a home-style school food movement will be the children, who will be served more nutritious foods that are better for their waistlines and their overall health. Hopefully they will also come to appreciate foods that contain less fat, sugar, salt, and additives, and take what they learn into adulthood.

Cook for America
New York Times, August 17, 2011
PBS Newshour

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons