School Food Chefs Learn to Plot Healthier Menus With a New Fellowship | Civil Eats

School Food Chefs Learn to Plot Healthier Menus With a New Fellowship

With scratch cooking in schools still hard to achieve, the program is training school lunch leaders to leave the heat-and-serve model behind.

A trio of school chefs working in the kitchen as part of the Healthy School Food Pathways program. (Photos courtesy of the Chef Ann Foundation)

A trio of school chefs working in the kitchen as part of the Healthy School Food Pathways Fellowship program. (Photos courtesy of the Chef Ann Foundation)

Zena Martinez, a food-program specialist with the Glendale Union High School District in Glendale, Arizona, calls the spicy chicken patty she serves for lunch the “bane of her existence.” The students love it, and, yes, it meets U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutritional standards, but she is tired of serving a heavily processed sandwich that comes frozen and in bulk quantities.

Martinez is so tired of serving this kind of processed meal, in fact, that a few years ago she went searching for information about what her district used to serve kids, hoping that she’d find old recipes for scratch-cooked meals tucked away somewhere. She flipped through heavy binders full of menus dating back to 2010 and found only disappointment: Hamburgers, pizza, chicken patties, the very meals she was rotating through every week had been staples for years, probably decades.

“You don’t see passion in these menus,” says Martinez. “You see the status quo.”

Zena Martinez, a Healthy School Food Pathways fellow, working in the school kitchen. (Photo courtesy of the Chef Ann Foundation)

Zena Martinez. (Photo courtesy of the Chef Ann Foundation)

Since then, Martinez, who oversees school food in nine high schools, began offering at least one meal every week that required more than reheating. Entrees like baked ziti and a chicken and rice bowl began popping up as lunch specials. Now, at least 10 percent of her menu involves what those in school food call “speed scratch” cooking, meaning she uses fully cooked ingredients such as chicken breasts and tomatoes, to produce a dish that’s less processed than frozen patties on a bun. A diet heavy in processed food is linked to less physical fitness in kids as well as a wide range of health problems including diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adults.

Martinez wants to boost her speed scratch cooking to 40 percent by next year, and she dreams of cooking only meals with raw, fresh ingredients two years after that.

“I believe that it’s fully achievable,” she says.

Her determination is exactly what the Chef Ann Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting scratch-cooking in schools, was looking for when it created the Healthy School Food Pathways Fellowship, a year-long program that aims to create a new generation of school food leaders eager to abandon the heat-and-serve model. Martinez was among the 24 inaugural fellows selected out of about 60 applicants from districts around the country.

“What do their choices mean for the nutrition of a child and the impact on the environment—and for the food system?”

Mara Fleishman, Chef Ann Foundation’s chief executive officer, says she conceived of the fellowship after noticing the same small group of people showing up at events promoting scratch cooking in schools, including founder Chef Ann Cooper, the foundation’s founder. Fleishman says the fellowship was intentionally advertised to mid-level managers, with the hope that after completing the fellowship, the fellows would stick around their districts, ascend into leadership roles, and establish lasting change.

“We can put them through a comprehensive 12-month program where we’re helping them understand the tenets of scratch cooking. Not just how to lead a scratch-cook program, but what does it mean?” she says. “What do their choices mean for the nutrition of a child and the impact on the environment—and for the food system?”

The fellowship aligns with a larger movement to include more fresh ingredients in school food. According to the USDA’s latest farm-to-school census from 2019, about 43 million children participate in farm-to-school programs every year, and nearly 68,000 schools feature local foods on their menu.

Still, the fellows face unique challenges rippling outward from the pandemic. Labor shortages persist, of course; but also, during the early days of COVID, the federal government made lunch free to all 50.6 million public school students nationwide. Last fall, the universal meal program expired in most states. A recent School Nutrition Association (SNA) survey of more than 1,000 school meal program directors found that among programs that must now charge for meals, there was an a 23 percent drop in breakfast participation on average and a 13 percent decline in lunch.

In Martinez’ district, the drop has been even more dramatic. “We have probably lost 38 percent participation [for lunch],” she says, adding that at one high school where last year they were serving 1,900 daily lunches, “now, we’re lucky to serve 800.” According to the SNA survey, about 60 percent of school meal program directors said that they were now charging students not eligible for free lunch.

And of those charging for meals, nearly all have experienced an increase in unpaid meal charges or debt, a burden on school district budgets, not to mention families struggling to keep up. Lower participation combined with unpaid meal debt means less money available for school food programs, limiting meal program directors’ ability to experiment with more labor-intensive or expensive approaches to meals.

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For all these reasons, it may seem like bad timing to launch new, healthier school menus. But the 24 fellows, including Martinez, plan to do just that.

Fellows Can’t Fix It All

When Martinez tried replacing the spicy chicken patty with a less-processed alternative, she was met with resistance from students and the cafeteria managers she oversees. “A third of my managers are like, ‘Yes, this is what we’ve been waiting for.’ I have another third of my managers who are like, ‘No way, I’m gonna buck the system and throw a spicy chicken patty at my kids,’” Martinez said during the first meeting of the Chef Ann Foundation fellows in January. And it was an experience shared by other fellows.

Nick Vedia, the district sous chef at Virginia Beach City Public Schools, oversees 82 kitchens and says a speed scratch recipe might taste great at one site, but another site might not get it right, and kids wind up snubbing the meal. “That is my challenge,” he says, “making sure I’m getting as close to a consistent product to our children.”

“It’s a brain trust of folks that can hopefully be the future leaders of school nutrition and spread this message of scratch cooking.”

As another aspect of its work to address the need for skilled cooks, the Healthy School Food Pathway program includes a separate but related apprenticeship that recruits and trains cooks specifically in cafeteria-scale scratch cooking. California invested $45 million in the program and is the only state where it’s currently up and running, though Colorado and Virginia are exploring adopting it as well.

California also invested in 12 of the fellows, while funding for the other 12, who work in districts ranging from Virginia to Arizona, came from the Whole Kids Foundation. Over the next year, the fellows will visit districts that have incorporated scratch cooking into their menus, take classes, and receive $5,000 to implement a project in their home district that will steer menus toward healthier offerings.

Martinez also wants her project to focus on building community in the cafeteria. “I want to offer meals reflective of all students,” she says. “We have students from Sudan and Cambodia. I want parents to submit recipes and we can sample them at school.”

Other fellows are contemplating how to add salad bars that kids will look forward to, following their inspiration to try hydroponic farming, devising 10 scratch-cooked recipes that can be taught to their staff over the summer, and more.

A salad bar at a school cafeteria. (Photo courtesy of the Chef Ann Foundation)a scratch-cooked rice bowl from a Chef Ann foundation fellowship program.

A salad bar and a rice bowl are among the offerings of foods serving healthier meals. (Photos courtesy of the Chef Ann Foundation)

Vedia, of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, says being a part of the fellowship has allowed like-minded people to share ideas about how to do more with less funding and work through labor shortages. (The SNA survey showed that 92 percent of districts reported a labor shortage, though smaller districts haven’t struggled as much as larger ones have.)

Martinez has suggested incorporating her high schools’ culinary classes into the school kitchen operations, and Vedia found hiring fairs that helped fill vacant kitchen positions on the spot. “It’s a brain trust of folks,” he says, “that can hopefully be the future leaders of school nutrition and spread this message of scratch cooking.”

No Magic Wands

Last year, with the bipartisan passage of the Keep Kids Fed Act, pandemic-era supports for school food was extended, including increased federal reimbursements for every school lunch by 40 cents and every school breakfast by 15 cents. But that funding boost is set to expire at the end of this school year, and schools will once again have to manage with low reimbursement rates that often don’t fully cover the cost of school meals and make it difficult to increase wages and attract staff.

On top of that, supply chain snarls and inflation continue to plague schools. “Food costs have gone through the roof,” says Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the SNA.

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But Cooper reminded fellows during their first meeting in January that school food has never been easy. “When I started 22 years ago, it was hard,” she said.

Dressed in a white chef’s coat, her Zoom background adorned with animated squash, she spoke about the importance of leaders committed to the cause. “It’s a process. I’m not Tinker Bell. I don’t have a magic wand to go, ‘Poof! All the food is going to be better,’” she said. “This is about taking baby steps. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

Martinez listened closely to the pep talk. She sees herself as leading the charge toward scratch-cooked meals in her Arizona district one step a time. “It can be as simple as getting away from one product,” she explains. “Like, getting raw ground beef rather than precooked, frozen ‘beef crumbles.’”

Martinez knows kids won’t always approve of new, healthier recipes, but she plans to offer samples of new items, gather feedback, and make changes. She also plans to utilize her fellowship year to advocate for wage increases so that she can retain skilled staff and continue to inch further away from the heat-and-serve model. If her plans work, she says, “Perhaps in five years you won’t see a chicken patty on our line.”

Anne Marshall-Chalmers is an investigative journalist at The War Horse and a former staff reporter with Civil Eats. A California native, she spent several years working as a reporter, writer, and audio producer in Tennessee and Kentucky before returning to the Bay Area to earn a master’s degree from the U.C. Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Atlas Obscura, USA Today, Bay Nature, Earth Island Journal, NPR, CalMatters, Inside Climate News, and Louisville Magazine. She reports on climate change, agriculture, public health, and the spaces where these topics intersect. Read more >

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