Cafeteria Cooking: A New Era in Vermont Schools
Written onMay 23 , 2014
We all know that “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Similarly, as any parent knows, you can put good, healthy food on kids’ lunch plates but that’s no guarantee they’ll actually eat it.
But who can blame them? Consider what they’re used to.
In early 2010, Washington Post reporter Ed Bruske visited the public school his daughter attended.
“The ‘scrambled eggs’ had been cooked in a factory in Minnesota, then shipped frozen in six-pound plastic bags to the District of Columbia. Getting them to the breakfast line was a simple matter of dumping the frozen eggs out of their bags and into stainless steel pans, then heating them in the kitchen’s commercial steamer. They come out looking more like pale yellow cottage cheese…ingredients included modified corn starch, xanthan gum, citric acid, artificial butter flavor, lipolized butter oil, and medium chain triglycerides.”
Here in Vermont, a consortium of dedicated individuals and organizations has created an elegant and remarkably effective tool that is turning such dismal results completely around. Published last year, New School Cuisine: Nutritious and Seasonal Recipes for School Cooks by School Cooks is a 206-page, full-color, spiral-bound collection of creative, healthy recipes that have proven popular in our regional schools. Not only that, these “from scratch” recipes were developed by Vermont school cooks themselves, and they rely on locally available, in-season products.
Providing meals to schoolchildren has been part of the American educational agenda since 1936, when Congress passed Public Law 320. In the midst of the Great Depression, farmers couldn’t find markets for their products, unsold surpluses continued to mount, and prices of farm products had declined. Meanwhile, millions of schoolchildren were unable to pay for their school lunches, and the danger of malnutrition among children became a national concern. Congress’s re-distribution of farm commodities to schools was handled through the teamwork of federal, state, and local governments.
In the decades since, school meal programs have become increasingly complex to administer, fraught with inefficiencies, and have too often succumbed to the moneyed influence of multi-national food corporations and big business lobbyists who curry favor with the elected and appointed officials overseeing them. By the turn of the century, school meals had become notoriously wretched.
Hope came in 2012, when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act nutrition standards went into effect. Championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, they brought serious improvements to school meals by mandating more whole grains, a wider selection of fruits and vegetables, and other healthy options.
The challenge now is getting children to eat these new kinds of meals. Sadly, the Government Accountability Office conducted a nationwide survey of nutrition directors and visited 17 schools in eight different school districts to audit the new programs. According to the GAO, students in each district “expressed dislike for certain foods that were served to comply with the new requirements, such as whole grain-rich products and vegetables in the beans and peas subgroups.” In a 2012 interview on the Today Show, Kern Halls, who works in school nutrition at the Orange County Public Schools in Florida, lamented, “We don’t want healthy trash cans. We want kids who are eating this stuff!”
The Vermont cookbook was the brainchild of Kathy Alexander, food nutritionist at Mt. Abraham High School in Bristol. Kathy was all too aware of the challenges of getting kids to enjoy healthier food, but she could also point to some real successes achieved by school cooks and nutritionists in Vermont who had been working with various “farm-to-school” programs and had developed their own recipes using local, in-season produce. Kathy brought her idea of putting together a simple cookbook of recipes to Abbie Nelson, education coordinator at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) and the director of Vermont Food Education Every Day (VT FEED). Of course Abbie jumped at the idea right away.
They understood that their cookbook had to be beautiful, practical, and not academic if it was going to actually be used. They wanted the book to have an honest, homespun feeling, so as to reinforce that these were not recipes handed down like edicts from afar. More important, the cookbook had to dispel the belief that school cafeteria food had to be bland, unappealing, and boring. And to adhere to the 2012 federal dietary guidelines, every recipe needed to present complete nutrition information. For example, a recipe for Mac & Trees, a casserole of macaroni and cheese with broccoli florets, would have to be listed as providing fifty 353-calorie servings, each containing 1.5 ounces of a meat alternative (cheese), 1 ounce of grain (whole-wheat macaroni), and 1/8 cup of a dark green vegetable (broccoli).
“It was overwhelming,” Abbie laughs. “When we applied for that first USDA grant, if we had known, had any idea, then, what this would actually entail, we probably would have run away as fast as we could!” Yet Abbie scrambled hard to keep the necessary funding flowing—“raising $500 here, a $1,000 there, we kept plugging away. Early on we probably received more in-kind donations than actual cash.”
Ultimately it took the support of many organizations and agencies: Team Nutrition, an initiative of the USDA; the Vermont Agency of Education; VT FEED; the School Nutrition Association of Vermont; the Vermont Dept. of Health; the New England Culinary Institute; the New England Dairy and Food Council; and Cabot Creamery, as well as collaboration with 14 school chefs and many inspired individuals.
Vermont school chefs received recipe standardization training and conducted recipe testing with the students in their schools, finally settling upon 78 kid-tested recipes for submission. Degree students at the New England Culinary Institute took over from there. In 2013, they were studying issues of food justice and childhood nutrition, so working on this cookbook melded perfectly with their required service learning class. They placed the food orders, costed and tested each recipe, worked on presentation, and provided essential feedback on each dish.
The 78 recipes in the book run the gamut from unique dishes such as Strawberry Spinach Salad with pumpkin seeds, balsamic vinegar, and maple syrup, or Cinnamon Nachos with Fruit Salad, to surprisingly popular meat alternatives such as Beet Burgers, and hearty soups such as Winter Vegetable Soup with Noodles. It also includes purely kid-friendly delights like Green Monster Pops—puréed pineapple, bananas, spinach, and kale, frozen into popsicles. Every recipe—thoroughly tested by students, school chefs, and nutritionists at NECI—is accompanied by stunning photographs and helpful hints for successful completion. The cookbook also includes tips for creating a successful farm-to-school program, ways to make local food affordable, and a guide to eating seasonally.
Gay Truax, contributing chef to the cookbook and nutrition director with the Salisbury Community School District in the Addison Central Supervisory Union, is quoted in the cookbook as saying that it’s “so easy to use, the pictures are very helpful, and the kids will surprise you and enjoy recipes you may think they wouldn’t. We have tried so many new items so regularly now that they look forward to [meals] and will be honest with their feedback. I did not think so many would like the stuffed cabbage lasagna, but they did—and asked if we could have it again! The book inspires ideas.”
Reviewing New School Cuisine, Janet Poppendieck, a professor of sociology at Hunter College in New York City and author of Free for All: Fixing School Food in America, called the book “an outstanding resource for food service directors, parents, and concerned citizens across the country who are working to help school food realize its potential to banish hunger, promote health, enhance education, stimulate local economies, preserve working landscapes, and protect the environment. I am impressed with the breadth of cooperation that went into producing this first-of-its-kind school cookbook.”
New School Cuisine was distributed to every public school in Vermont and to every state’s child nutrition department. The Vermont Agency of Education printed the first 500 copies. A short run by Minute Man Press was necessary to meet immediate demands, and a full second printing is currently in the works with Queen City Press of Burlington. Copies from the second printing will be available for order soon from Shelburne Farms’ website. At this point, advance orders are already in from schools in more than 20 states. A free printable version can also be downloaded at vtfeed.org.
Summing up the success of the project, Abbie Nelson speaks with well-justified pride: “This book illustrates what has already been done here, what is happening now in Vermont, using farm-to-school collaboration. It shows the skills, the professionalism, and the creativity of our food directors and their staffs. These recipes wouldn’t have made it into the book if the kids weren’t already eating and enjoying this food.”