Food for Thought: Introducing scratch-made goodness to school cafeterias

“Hey, there's corn in the cornbread!”
Public school students in Dayton, Ky. aren't used to scratch-made foods in school. Like most public school cafeterias, theirs are often stocked with frozen foods the staff is trained to simply heat and serve.
This summer, Interact for Health sponsored a program that hopes to change student eating habits for the better. And two weeks into the school year, kids in Dayton are already seeing real corn in their cornbread.
'Children don’t stop learning in the cafeteria'
Interact for Health's mission is to improve health and wellness in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. The nonprofit organization provides grants for health initiatives in the area, and staff members educate the public and promote wellness-related policies.

With alarming rates of childhood obesity and diet-related illnesses creeping into schools, public school cafeterias are the ideal recipients of these types of grants. The solution, IFH Program Officer Jaime Love says, is found in scratch cooking.
“Freshly prepared items are more nutritious,” Love says. “Processed foods like chicken nuggets have a lot more additives. It's not real food. We should be using real chicken breasts instead.”
Furthermore, Love says, kids are far more likely to eat fresh produce than cooked. 
“It's more appealing,” she says, “so kids are more likely to try it and like it.”
Promoting healthy eating in schools also takes advantage of the preexisting learning environment. School cafeterias can be the perfect place to teach children about food and healthy habits.
“Children don’t stop learning in the cafeteria,” says Jay Brewer, Superintendent of Dayton Independent Schools. “We as educators have a responsibility — the first thing we need to do is recognize that.”

Culinary boot camp
Love and her Interact for Health team decided that the best way to bring these changes to public schools is to start with the food service departments and staff. The first step was a wide-range assessment of food service departments in each school district in the Tristate area conducted by Cook for America (CFA), another organization dedicated to bringing real cooking and real food to places that did not have it before.
In July, Interact for Health funded the second step of the process, a five-day Cook for America Lunch Teachers Culinary Boot Camp for several area schools. Dayton Independent Schools, Franklin County (Indiana) Schools and three Cincinnati-based Catholic Inner City Education Schools all met in the Dayton High School Cafeteria to learn cooked-from-scratch recipes and techniques to improve the lunch dining experience for their 4,500 students. They received hands-on instruction from CFA staff and prepared all staff meals throughout the week.
Jaime LoveTopics covered in the boot camp included culinary math, basic knife skills, recipe development, batch cooking, menu planning and time management.
According to Love, menu planning is especially important to many of these area schools.
“The many school districts using the USDA meal program are required to purchase orders for the upcoming school year in February,” she says. “Interact for Health is cognizant of that.”
Each day of boot camp split the cooks into two groups: half in the kitchen, half in the classroom.
“Every cook went home with a binder of 100-plus recipes they can use in schools,” Love says.
The final stage of the Interact for Health program hopes to ensure implementation. Cook for America will be visiting each district again in the months following the start of the 2015-16 school year.
“We’re working with the schools on a three-year basis,” Love says. “We understand that it takes time for (the schools) to implement this. They are not expected to make a sudden change this year; that’s not feasible for schools or staff.”
In October and November, mobile chefs from CFA will spend a week in each of the school kitchens to provide additional assistance post-boot camp.
“Once the three years have passed for our first cohort, I’m sure we’ll continue talking to them and checking in,” Love says. “We want to keep their network (of resources) as broad as possible.”

The program in action
Since school started two weeks ago, Superintendent Brewer has seen an immediate impact from the boot camp.
“We had students eating brussels sprouts last week,” Brewer says. “I’m not saying all students, but that in itself speaks volumes as to where we are.”
Eighty percent of students in Dayton Independent Schools qualify for a free or reduced lunch program, which means that Brewer’s schools are serving breakfast, lunch and sometimes even dinner to their students.
“We have a much greater responsibility,” he says.
Jay BrewerThe kids within the Dayton district have offered mixed reviews of the new menu options. Brewer finds that the younger kids are more receptive to the changes while the high school students want the old stuff back.
“I have to tell (the kids) that we’re not a concession stand,” he says. “We can’t feed them five days a week like that.”
Brewer recently hired a new food service director for the Dayton district soon after receiving the Interact for Health grant. Lauren Marlow has a bachelor’s degree in dietetics and a Masters in school and community nutrition.
Even with all of the positive changes, Brewer and his team realize that implementation won’t happen overnight.
“It can take eight to 10 tries to acclimate a person to a food change,” Brewer says. “One good meal won’t make you change significantly; it’s compounded nutritional experiences over time. The goal is to get our kids to understand the difference between instant and delayed gratification.”
That said, Dayton students are already seeing a difference in their food.
When asked if the program would be fully implemented at the three-year mark, Brewer had one word for me: “Absolutely.”