Can School Lunches Be Fresh and Healthy? The Mid-Prairie District says, “YES!”

By / Photography By Brandi Janssen | March 01, 2014
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If you’re ever among a group of people and find yourself in need of a conversation starter, I recommend you bring up the topic of school lunch. You are guaranteed a lengthy and thorough discussion with all parties in vehement agreement: school lunches are terrible. Most of us who benefitted from public education have at least one vivid memory of our years spent in school cafeterias that includes some version of mystery meat, overcooked canned vegetables, and watery fruits served by grouchy, hair-net clad lunch ladies. After the trip down memory lane, your party will likely move to the next logical topic of how to “fix” school lunches. Here, the discussion might become more diversified. Perhaps the solution is more federal or state funding or the addition of Meatless Mondays to decrease costs and improve healthy options. Emphasizing local foods or organic and additive-free items might improve students’ level of focus at school. Possibly, even providing more time at lunch will ensure that students eat their entire meal and are better prepared for the rest of their day.

The national and media conversation about school lunch reflects many of these concerns and solutions. First lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” initiative has identified improving school lunches as a way to make a significant impact on child nutrition in the US. With over 32 million students taking part in the National School Lunch Program, this makes sense. In 2010, the passage of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act resulted in some significant changes in school lunches including, for those schools that meet new nutrition standards, the first increase in federal reimbursement in several decades. The new guidelines include offering both fruits and vegetables in each lunch, and requiring students to take at least one. School lunches now also rely heavily on whole grain products, lower fat dairy, and have calorie limits, depending on the students’ ages. For the most part, the legislation has been received as a step in the right direction. I’m going to add another solution to the discussion. It’s pretty basic really, and was even normal at one time: build schools with kitchens in which people can actually cook.

The Mid-Prairie school district in southeast Iowa does just that. Serving 1,200 students in Kalona, Washington Township and Wellman, the district has three elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, and one alternative high school. The main high school and middle school each cook for their own students and one elementary school. Washington Township Elementary serves breakfast and lunch from its own kitchen. All of these kitchens produce the same lunch, based on a rotating seasonal menu. For the most part, the Mid-Prairie district looks very similar to any mid-sized rural school district, with high academic achievement, solid athletic programs and many art and performance opportunities. The food service staff, however, regularly goes above and beyond the standard school lunch fare. Almost every meal served to students is prepared from scratch, complete with freshly baked breads, rolls and hamburger buns and homemade sauces and dressings.

I spent one Wednesday morning in January with Martha Benedict, the cook at Washington Township Elementary. This 72-year-old great grandmother has been a cook all her life, learning the basics from her mother when she still needed a stepstool to reach the counter. Martha efficiently, and without much fanfare, put together a homemade lunch of lasagna, mixed salad, fruit salad, steamed broccoli and freshly baked rolls for the approximately 75 students at Washington Township Elementary.

The first thing you notice when walking into Martha’s kitchen is the shelf lined with dried herbs and spices that fills the back wall. A collection of paring and chef’s knives adhere to a magnet strip and a Kitchen Aid mixer sits on the counter nearby. Martha arrives each morning at 6:00am and starts with her bread dough; by the time she’s finished serving breakfast, the dough has risen and is ready for shaping. When I arrived just after 8:30, Martha had already cooked the beef for the day’s lasagna and had the rolls shaped and proofing. She started on the fruit salad next, cutting up several whole pineapples and adding quartered strawberries and blueberries. While she worked, she noted that the on-site cooking probably makes the biggest difference in the quality of school lunches. But, she points out, that even if food is transported to other schools, it can still be homemade.

After the fruit salad was complete, Martha brushed her rolls with melted butter and gave them a sprinkle of oregano and granulated garlic. The rolls went into the oven and Martha moved on to her lasagna. She typically makes her own sauce and uses whole wheat pasta, per the requirements of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. Martha had already browned and drained the ground beef and pointed out that cooking the meal the day it is served reduces the risk of food-borne illness. A lasagna cooked the day prior would go through multiple changes in temperature as it’s cooked, cooled and reheated, which increases the opportunity for bacteria growth. When Martha’s lasagna comes out of the oven, it is allowed a quick rest to meld the sauce and flavors, and is immediately served piping hot to the students. Now that the beef was cooked and drained, Martha blended the meat with a healthy dose of basil and oregano and a mixture of mozzarella, cheddar, Parmesan, and ricotta cheeses. She learned this trick of combining the meat with the cheese (rather than the sauce) from a childhood Italian neighbor and the result is a nice crumbly, evenly blended filling. The meat and cheeses were layered with sauce and noodles and the pans were ready for the oven.

By this point it was about 10:00am and Martha was ready to make her salad. Unfortunately, the produce truck had not yet arrived. She had some leaf lettuce that she had already chopped, but not enough to feed everyone. She drummed her fingers on the counter as she thought a moment before declaring, “broccoli!” She produced two large bags of vibrant green frozen broccoli from one of three freezers in her office. The broccoli was sourced from one of the many commodity programs that schools tap into to reduce costs. While commodity meat and cheese tends to garner the most attention, there are also programs for fresh and frozen produce. Just as Martha started preparing the broccoli (a quick stovetop bath in hot water so it stays crisp), the produce distributor arrived with crates of fresh fruits and vegetables, including kiwi, celery, red and green bell peppers, onions, and the much anticipated spinach for the salad. Martha combined the fresh spinach with chopped carrots, red and green bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and cauliflower into a colorful salad. She then quickly mixed up a yogurt-based ranch dressing that was served on the side.

The produce delivery drivers arrived at the perfect moment. The rolls had just come from the oven and Martha wrapped several in a paper towel for them to take along. As the lasagna baked, Martha tidied up and prepared to serve. Two fifth and two sixth graders arrived to help, efficiently donning hairnets and gloves for their day’s work.

The concern about childhood health and obesity has increased scrutiny on the nutritional content of foods. The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act responded by implementing calorie limits, whole grain requirements and fiber recommendations. I asked Martha how the new program had affected her work. She noted that she likes the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act because it encourages more whole and fresh foods. This makes cooking more enjoyable for her. The food industry, of course, is also glad to step in with “nutritionally enhanced” foods that boast added vitamins or whole grain content. However, in a cook’s kitchen, as Martha points out, many of those nutritional benefits can be realized without resorting to highly processed foods. Martha has a number of tricks up her sleeve to make basic recipes more nutrient-dense. All of her breads consist primarily of whole wheat flour and oatmeal, with some white flour to maintain a light texture. She adds cauliflower to mashed potatoes; none of the students know this and yet they consistently clean their plates when mashed potatoes are served. For every 20 pounds of potatoes that she cooks (and peels herself, by the way), she adds two whole heads of chopped cauliflower. The potatoes have a richer flavor, and no one is the wiser. Martha knows every student by name, and can quickly list off the ones who would not otherwise touch cauliflower on the tray. She smiles and says, “they don’t have a clue.” Martha also adds sweet potatoes or pureed carrots to her tomato-based sauces. The sweet vegetables cut the acidity of the tomatoes and add a bit of a nutrient boost. Frozen spinach or sweet potatoes can also be added to baked goods.

The issue of labor cost is one potential downside of preparing from scratch meals in school kitchens. However, Martha notes that labor costs have not changed in the Mid-Prairie district as a result of additional prep work. Over the nine years she has cooked at Washington Township Elementary, the district has at times relied on pre-packaged foods. Now, the middle and high school kitchens each have a staff of six, a mix of full and part time positions, who are able to prepare homemade meals in the same time-frame that they assembled premade processed meals in the past.

To make this system work, even small schools benefit from having a production kitchen, staffed with people who have basic cooking skills. The trend in many districts is to centralize food production, so that one or two large kitchens are making lunch for several other schools. Food is then prepared very early and transported around the community, resulting in lower quality meals. Often, a kitchen is not even a consideration when a district plans to build a new school. Including this basic requirement, and spreading staff throughout a district rather than concentrating them in one or two huge kitchens, reduces food transportation and allows cooks to prepare fresher foods that are ready to serve at lunchtime.

So the next time you have that conversation about how to fix school lunch, add this idea to the pot: provide school food service staff with the tools of the trade so they can actually cook meals. Judging by Martha’s homemade lunch, the result will be colorful, delicious meals and lots of clean trays.

Article from Edible Iowa River Valley at
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