Pizza, a beloved school lunch staple, has been radically reinvented this year for most Spokane school kids.
With the help of a $1 million grant from the Empire Health Foundation, 26 of 52 schools in the Spokane Public Schools district – including nearly all elementaries – are now making pizzas and other favorites from scratch. That’s up from 10 Spokane schools that participated last year, and after pilot programs showed success in Cheney and Othello in 2011.
Scratch cooking incorporates natural ingredients made mostly in-house.
“The pizza is, I think, a pretty cool story,” said Laura Martin, of the Empire Health Foundation’s Obesity Prevention Initiative.
“It’s local all the way around,” she said. The wheat is grown by Eastern Washington farmers, milled locally and turned into flour by the sustainability-minded farm alliance Shepherd’s Grain. Their product is then processed into dough and whole-wheat crust by Spokane’s own Rizzuto Foods. The school district provides a healthy sauce and low-fat cheese.
The scratch-cooking effort focuses on “fresh, local and delicious,” said Mark Oswalt, the school district’s nutrition services supervisor.
That also describes the high standard foods must meet to be included in a meal that will reach school lunch trays. The U.S. Department of Agriculture dictates a laundry list of nutrition requirements: Designing a recipe that satisfies the USDA sodium, fat, sugar and calorie counts is no small feat, Martin said.
A statewide scratch-cooking recipe book for schools published by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2013 includes such dishes as white chicken chili, baja fish tacos, pulled turkey, hummus and yogurt parfait.
“It’s exciting to be a part of such a big change,” said Oswalt, who, along with Martin, is responsible for implementing the “Power Up with Scratch Cooking” program. They work together to coordinate marketing and promotion efforts, corral technical resources, train staff and find new recipes.
Nutrition education is a big component of the program.
The “Power Up” program teaches students to be wary of processed foods that make up 70 percent of the American diet, according to Martin, and instead cultivates their tastebuds to steer them to the produce aisle.
“One in three kids today is overweight or obese,” she noted. “A lot of that has to do with the food that we are eating. We don’t understand what we are putting into our bodies.”
She said, “In the beginning, we would put whole pears out on a salad bar line and I would have elementary kids say, ‘What is this?’ They thought pears came in cans.”
The school district is combating that culture by educating teachers, parents and students to “understand why we’re making these changes and why they are good for kids,” said Martin. Students are learning how their food grows and where it comes from. She calls it a “comprehensive farm-to-school curriculum.” Martin expects all 52 city schools to be on board by the 2018-19 academic year.
The National Institutes of Health studied the cost of scratch cooking in schools in 2014 because many districts expressed concern that switching to scratch cooking would be more expensive. It concluded that scratch cooking results in “significantly lower food costs,” but higher labor costs, resulting in about the same total cost as using prepared and packaged foods in a school kitchen.
In a pilot program on scratch cooking conducted by the Empire Health Foundation in Cheney and Othello, “The first two years showed both a decline in the percentage of overweight/obese students and an increase in revenue for the school districts’ nutrition services,” the foundation says.
Before unveiling the new recipes and meals for Spokane Public Schools, organizers invited students to a summer taste test.
“We actually had elementary kids coming up to us saying, ‘So we really get to eat this food all year next year?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, you really do,’ ” said Martin with a laugh.
Oswalt said the same recipes are used at each of the participating schools on a five-week menu cycle. Most items are featured only once per cycle, but some favorites, like the pizza, reach stomachs twice. Nutrition Services is planning a future release of recipes for families to integrate into their home diets as well.
Said Martin, “It’s kind of an adventure.”
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