As Inland Northwest classrooms reopen this week, most of us can conjure up warm memories of our days in school. But few have any sentimental attachment to the lunches we ate there.
Our memories are generational. I remember steam trays filled with congealed macaroni, flecked with plastic specks of ham and peas the color of old Army blankets. My daughters recall rubbery chicken nuggets, mushy tater tots and crispy-edged burgers the texture of fresh asphalt.
This fall six regional school districts plan to change all that with a decidedly retro idea: fresh food, cooked right in the school kitchen. These school lunchrooms will look and smell less like mall food courts and more like grandmothers’ kitchens, a notion so sane it’s downright revolutionary.
In the last 30 years, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn, the obesity rate of kids living in the U.S. has tripled. These kids are at much higher risk for heart disease and diabetes. A Michigan study of sixth-graders found in 2010 that kids who ate school lunches were 29 percent more likely to be obese than those who brought their lunch from home.
School lunches reflect changes in American culture, such as a desire for convenience, the notion that kids will only eat certain foods (pizza, nachos, nuggets and burgers), and the power of large food manufacturers.
Just last year, firms like ConAgra and Schwan’s Food Service lobbied to prevent stiffer U.S. Department of Agriculture vegetable requirements in school lunches, according to the New York Times. As a result, 1/8-cup of tomato paste spread on a pizza crust counts as a vegetable. Likewise, the National Potato Council warded off a proposal to replace starchy vegetables with more orange and dark green ones.
An organization called Cook for America helps train schools to counter those forces. Co-founder Kate Adamick, a classically trained professional chef, has written a book called “Lunch Money: Serving Healthy School Food in a Sick Economy.” For school districts with tight budgets, Adamick recommends many of the strategies American grandmothers used to employ: cooking meats and beans from scratch, serving fewer desserts, skipping expensive chocolate milk, offering only one entrée each day, using washable flatware (not plastic sporks) and shopping carefully.
This summer food service workers from East Valley, Wellpinit, Davenport, Newport, Cheney and Othello, as well as the Community School in the Spokane Public Schools, attended Cook For America training, funded by $200,000 in grants from the Empire Health Foundation.
Cook for America advocates baking chicken in school ovens, not warming up processed nuggets; roasting fresh vegetables, not reheating premade french fries. (Cook For America reports that kids start saying things like: “I love chicken with bones!”)
Starting this fall, the USDA will require schools to serve more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, less fat and salt, 100 percent fruit and vegetable juices and lower-fat milk.
Certainly the best meals come out of my kitchen when I cook from scratch. I learned that from a grandmother who used to cook her way through Julia Child and the Time-Life cookbooks.
One recent evening, I talked to Doug Wordell, director of nutrition services for Spokane Public Schools, right at dinnertime. From-scratch cooking poses challenges for a big district. Wordell worries about maintaining food safety if employees in 50 district kitchens start cutting up raw chicken, for example. He’s concerned about stretching the district’s $12.6 million food service budget to cover the costs of the new U.S.D.A. requirements. He also believes processed foods are higher quality than ever.
These are valid concerns. After I hung up the phone, I plunged into our dinner, washing a bowlful of Washington cherries, slicing up local zucchini with tomatoes from my garden, and, yes, microwaving a package of Trader Joe’s Chicken Marsala with Mashed Potatoes. The ingredient list included carrageenan, maltodextrin, dried whey and mysterious “natural flavors.” The dish was also loaded with fat.
That night, my kitchen didn’t entirely meet the grandma test either. But at least I make those processed entreés a rare exception, not the rule. Our region’s kids would be healthier if all school kitchens did the same.Jamie Tobias Neely, a former associate editor at The Spokesman-Review, is an assistant professor of journalism at Eastern Washington University. Her email address is email@example.com.