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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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School districts move to from-scratch cooking

The aromas of herbed baked chicken and cheesy macaroni wafted through the air. While a few cooks clad in white coats busily stocked a salad bar and set up a buffet table, others checked the poultry and made sure the baked pasta had browned.

The scene, representative of a busy bistro, will become a common sight in a handful of school district cafeterias around Eastern Washington starting this fall.

East Valley, Wellpinit, Davenport and Newport school districts, along with Spokane Public Schools’ Community School, are ditching processed food for from-scratch cooking. Those school districts join Cheney and Othello, which piloted the program last year.

The switch will affect more than 1.6 million meals served during the 2012-’13 school year, according to the Empire Health Foundation. The nonprofit organization provided grants for New York-based Cook for America to train food service employees at two weeklong boot camps in Newport and Cheney this summer.

“The food sells itself, but first you have to do a little marketing,” said Brian Levy, the nutrition services director at Cheney School District. “Be honest with the kids. Tell them what you’re doing.”

Tell them about the unappealing additives that might be in chicken nuggets versus a fresh piece of chicken, he added. Open up the cafeteria doors and let them smell the food cooking.

“If the food looks good and tastes good, they forget about the stuff they’re not getting,” Levy said.

Schools making the switch are using fresh vegetables instead of canned, axing chocolate milk, mixing butternut squash into their cheese sauces, roasting vegetables and making salad dressings from scratch.

“When we learned we could have kids eating fresh foods, and the program was cash-flow positive or budget-neutral, it was a no-brainer,” said Antony Chiang, Empire Health Foundation president.

Georjean Kuntz, East Valley’s nutrition services director, said “We weren’t sure at the beginning if this could ever be done.” But at the boot camp she and other food service workers learned about time management; what items could be made ahead; knife skills; how to work with different meats; how to make sauces that work with multiple meals; menu planning; and cost-benefit analysis.

By using herbs and vegetables from the district’s community garden, ordering meat locally and no longer using canned goods, just to name a few examples, Kuntz estimates a savings of $50,000 annually.

Eating food made from scratch “is how we used to eat in school,” Kuntz said. “But they got it stuck in their heads it was too much labor.”

The from-scratch program has proven otherwise. Cheney School District didn’t have to hire any additional personnel to make fresh food daily. Kuntz said she doesn’t anticipate having to hire any additional food service workers, either.

Levy said the district’s decision to make the switch from processed to from-scratch food was easy. “This is the way we’re supposed to eat. This is what our bodies are supposed to process.”

Kuntz said, “Our main job is to feed the future. I sure don’t want to feed our kids anything but healthy food.”

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