While the fine-dining chef at her high school offered samples of her newest recipes, Anahi Nava Flores critiqued a baguette sandwich with Toscano salami, organic Monterey Jack, arugula, and crushed basil: “This pesto aioli is good!”
Classmate Kentaro Turner ate deli-style bacon melted on sourdough and switched to Spanish-style rice and free-range chicken simmered in chipotle broth. “Everything is delicious!”
These are not words usually spoken in school cafeterias.
The meals served at Mount Diablo Unified, the San Francisco suburban school system, reflect the trend away from mass-produced, reheated meals. Lunch menus are filled with California-grown fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats, and recipes that challenge the inedible school lunch cliché.
Among American schoolchildren, these students are in the lucky few. Making fresh meals requires a significant investment and, in many areas, an overhaul of how school kitchens have operated for decades. Inflation and supply chain disruptions have only made the job of school nutrition managers harder by widening gaps in access to affordable, high-quality food.
What’s more, federal money has dwindled to boost lunch budgets. Last year, the government ended an epidemic-era program that offered free school meals to everyone. A few states, like California, paid for meals to be free for all students, but most states have reverted to charging all but the most needy children for meals.
The increase in money from the California state government has made it possible for Mount Diablo to purchase fresher local ingredients and hire chef Josh Gjersand, a veteran of Michelin-starred restaurants. Serving 30,000 students from affluent and low-income communities east of San Francisco, local farms, bakers, dairy and fishermen now supply most of the ingredients.
One January morning recently, student taste testers were trying out Gjersand’s latest creations. Their daily specials ranged from barbecue spare ribs to fresh red snapper on a whole grain brioche bun.
“I like the idea of serving better food to students,” said Gjersand, who left restaurants that lost their shine when serving wagyu-beef and caviar to a crowd during the pandemic. “School cafeterias should feel like restaurants, not fast food chains.”
School systems elsewhere can only dream of such offers.
“We’re financially dying right now,” said Patti Bilbrey, director of nutrition for the Arizona Scottsdale Unified School District. It charges students $2.85 per lunch, but that no longer comes close to covering the cost of the district.
The lack of staff makes it impossible to cook more from scratch, he said. The school relies on mass-produced food that is distributed and then reheated. Pizza: “Done; You just cook.” Spicy chicken sandwich: “Heat it up and put it on a bun.” “You just have to wrap it up,” said the corn dogs.
Some students give the food positive reviews. “I eat spicy chicken every day. This is my favourite,” said Hunter Kimble, a sixth-year student at Tonalea Middle School, where nearly 80% of students still qualify for free or discounted meals.
Eighth grader Araceli Canales is more critical. School is serving an orange chicken that he says embarrasses him. “The meat is like a different color,” she said. At lunch recently, Araceli had a chicken Caesar salad and noted that the croutons were soft and firm. “The chicken tastes good but I want them to cook it longer and add more seasoning.” She threw away most of her salad when the bell rang.
Not many schools can afford gourmet offerings like Mount Diablo’s, which also takes advantage of California’s year-round growing season. But Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, said school menus in many places over the past decade have evolved with fresher ingredients and more ethnic dishes.
But the pandemic has created new obstacles.
In a national survey of 1,230 school nutrition principals, nearly all said rising food and material costs were their biggest challenge this year. More than 90% said they are facing supply chain and staff shortages.
The survey by the Nutrition Association also found that students’ lunch debt soared in schools that returned to charging for food. The association urges Congress to maintain free breakfast and lunch nationwide.
“This is the worst and fastest debt buildup I’ve seen in 12 years in school nutrition,” said Angela Richey, director of nutrition for the Roseville and St Anthony-New Brighton school districts, which serve nearly 9,400 students in Minnesota. They don’t turn down a hungry child, but this year’s school meal debt has exceeded $90,000 and is growing at a rate of over $1,000 a day.
Many school nutrition directors say that cooking from scratch is not only healthier, but also cheaper.
But this is only possible when schools have kitchens. In the 1980s, a national departure from school kitchens began, ushering in the era of mass-produced, processed school foods. Pre-made meals delivered by food service companies meant schools could eliminate full-time cafeteria staff and kitchens.
“Unless you have a kitchen to break things down, there’s not much you can do with fresh vegetables,” said Nina Ichikawa, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, who was part of the team that evaluated a farm-to-school incubator in California. grant. He defines California’s investments as compensating for past losses.
In 2021, California committed to spending $650 million annually to support federal food reimbursements—money for food, personnel, new equipment, and other improvements. Additionally, hundreds of millions of dollars are available for kitchen infrastructure and schools that cook from scratch and buy from Californian farmers.
In rural California’s rural Modoc Unified School District near the Oregon border, lunch menus reflect what the state is trying to change: a rotation of hot dogs, chicken nuggets, pizza, hamburgers. There are vegetables as required by federal guidelines, but usually not fresh. “I try not to eat canned vegetables more than twice a week,” said Jessica Boal, director of nutrition for the 840 student district.
Five schools in the area do not have functional kitchens, so their staff spend half their day opening deliveries of processed, pre-prepared food. But Boal is excited about the change on the horizon. The district recently applied for government assistance to put new kitchens and bring more products to every school.
Mount Diablo High still has hot dogs and hamburgers, but the meats are grass-fed.
“I haven’t served chicken wings here in two years. “Kids don’t miss it either,” said Dominic Machi, who has redesigned meals for the region since becoming director of nutrition five years ago.
Students at the school, 96% of whom belong to a racial or ethnic minority group, say that attention to quality food sends a message of respect.
The school is in a neighborhood with fast food strip malls. But inside its walls, “this meal makes me feel more important. “It feels good not to eat junk food,” said 16-year-old Kahlanii Cravanas.
Anahi Nava Flores, 17, said the food instills a sense of self-worth. “When you go to a fancy restaurant, you go home feeling good about life. That’s what this dish does.”
Cheyanne Mumphrey contributed reports from Scottsdale, Arizona.