Saturday, February 4, 2023

Some school lunches in America are health-oriented

As her high school chef served up samples of her new dishes, Anahi Nava Flores offered her thoughts on a baguette sandwich with Toscano salami, organic Monterey Jack cheese, arugula, and basil spread:

“This pesto aioli is delicious!”.

His classmate, Kentaro Turner, devoured a deli-style pastrami smothered on sourdough, then moved on to free-range chicken slow-cooked in chipotle broth with Spanish-style rice. “Everything is delicious!”

These are not phrases that are commonly spoken in the school cafeteria.

The food served at Mount Diablo Unified, his school system in suburban San Francisco, reflects a trend away from mass-produced, reheated food. Their lunch menus are filled with California-grown fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats, and dishes that defy the stereotype of inedible school meals.

Among American school children, these students are a fortunate minority. Making food fresher required a significant investment and, in many areas, a restructuring of how school kitchens operated for decades. Inflation and supply chain disruptions have made things more difficult for school nutritionists, widening the gap in access to high-quality, affordable food.

As if that weren’t enough, federal funding for the lunches has been reduced. Last year, the government scrapped a pandemic-era program that offered free school meals to all. Some states, such as California, are paying to keep meals free for all students, but most states went back to charging all needy children for meals.

Increased funding from the California state government has made it possible for Mount Diablo to purchase fresh, local ingredients and hire chef Josh Jourand, a veteran of Michelin-starred restaurants. Local farms, bakers, dairies and fish vendors now supply most of the ingredients for the district, which serves 30,000 students from low-income and wealthy communities east of San Francisco.

One recent January morning, some students sampled Gjarsand’s latest creations. Their daily specials include everything from barbecue ribs to fresh red snapper on a whole wheat brioche bun.

“I like the idea of ​​serving better food to the students,” says Jourand, who left the restaurant during the pandemic when the Japanese beef and caviar he prepared lost its charm. “School cafeterias should feel like restaurants and not fast food chains,” he says.

School systems elsewhere in the United States can only dream of such foods.

“Economically, we’re dying right now,” explains Patty Bilbray, director of nutrition for Arizona’s Scottsdale Unified School District. The district charges students $2.85 for lunch, but it no longer comes close to covering the district’s costs.

He added that the shortage of staff makes it impossible to cook more fresh food. The school relies on mass-produced food that is delivered and reheated. Pizza: “It’s done, you just bake it.” The Spicy Chicken Sandwich: “You heat it up and put it on a slice of bread.” Sausage Banderilla: “All you have to do is wrap it,” he says.

Some students say they are happy with those foods. “I eat spicy chicken every day. It’s my favorite,” says Hunter Kimble, a sixth-grader at Tonalia Middle School, where about 80% of students still qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

But eighth grader Araceli Canales is more serious. The school serves an orange chicken which she says surprises her. “The flesh has a different color,” he explains. During a recent school lunch, Arcelli ate a chicken Caesar salad and noticed that the croutons were soft and tough. “The chicken tastes good, but I wish they cooked it longer and added more seasoning.” When the doorbell rang, he threw most of his salad in the trash.

Not many schools can afford delicious cuisine like the Mount Diablo district, which also benefits from California’s year-round growing season. However, Diane Pratt-Hevner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, says school menus in many parts of the country have improved over the past decade, with fresher ingredients and more ethnic dishes.

However, the pandemic created new hurdles.

In a national survey of 1,230 school nutrition directors, nearly all said rising food and supply costs were their biggest challenge this year. Over 90% said they are facing supply chain issues and staff shortages.

The survey, conducted by the Nutrition Association, also found that schools have very high levels of debt for students’ mid-day meals, which is why they have reverted to charging for meals. The association has urged Congress to reintroduce free school breakfast and lunch across the country.

“This is the worst and fastest debt build-up I’ve had in my 12 years in school nutrition,” says Angela Ritchie, director of nutrition for the Roseville and St. Anthony-New Brighton school districts in Minnesota, which serve about 9,400 students. They haven’t turned away a hungry child, but this year the debt for school meals has exceeded $90,000, growing at a rate of more than $1,000 a day.

Many school nutrition directors say that making fresh food is not only healthier, but also cheaper.

But this is possible only when schools have kitchens. The 1980s saw a national shift away from school kitchens, ushering in an era of largely processed school foods. Pre-made meals provided by the companies meant that schools could remove full-time staff from cafeterias and kitchens.

“If you don’t have a kitchen where you can chop things, there’s not much you can do with fresh vegetables,” says Nina Ichikawa, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute. For California schools. She describes California’s investment as a way to undo past damage.

In 2021, California has pledged to spend $650 million annually to add to federal food reimbursements: money for food, staff, new equipment and other improvements. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars are available for kitchen infrastructure and for the schools that cook fresh food and purchase produce from California farmers and ranchers.

In California’s Modoc Unified School District, a rural area near the Oregon border, the lunch menu reflects what the state is trying to change: a rotation of hot dogs, chicken nuggets, pizza and hamburgers. There are also vegetables per federal guidelines, but they are generally not fresh. “I try to have canned vegetables no more than twice a week,” explains Jessica Boal, nutrition director for the district of 840 students.

The district’s five schools lack functional kitchens, so her staff spends half a day unpacking deliveries of pre-made and processed foods, but Boal is excited about the coming changes. The district recently applied for a state grant to build new kitchens in each school and bring in more fresh food.

At Mount Diablo High School, there are still hot dogs and hamburgers, but the meat is grass-fed.

“I haven’t had chicken nuggets here in two years and the kids don’t remember them,” says Dominic Machi, who has researched food for the district since becoming director of nutrition five years ago.

Students at the school – 96% of whom are from a racial or ethnic minority group – say the focus on quality food sends a message of respect.

The school is in a neighborhood of shopping centers with fast food restaurants, but within its facilities, “This food makes me feel more important. Not eating junk food makes you feel good,” explains 16-year-old Kahlani Kravenas.

Anahi Nava Flores, 17, believes that eating well builds a sense of self-esteem. “When you go to a high-end restaurant, you go home feeling good about life. That’s what food does.”


Associated Press writer Cheyenne Mumphrey in Scottsdale, Ariz., contributed to this report.


The Associated Press team dedicated to education issues is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Associated Press is solely responsible for all content.

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