Mar 19, 2018

Devising a New Strategy for Great School Food

By Greg Christian 

As our lives have become more and more hectic due to the demands of living in today’s society, our eating patterns have shifted to consuming fast convenient foods during less structured eating occasions.  Families rarely gather around the table to enjoy a home-cooked meal together anymore. Meals are now quick and on the go.  In general today’s younger generation has not learned how to make healthy food choices and older generations have forgone healthy food choices and often do not cook meals.  Just look around at the next gathering you attend.

In recent years many groups including: garden/local food/composting advocates; government organizations such as the USDA, Let’s Move, and the EPA; parent groups clamoring for better food; and students storming board meetings demanding better school food across the country have all been focused on trying to make school food better.

Clearly these groups are working very hard to make an impact on children’s eating habits, but many students are still unsure about where their foods come from and how they should eat healthy. Students at many schools are eating mostly processed foods that they end up throwing away (at least 40% of what they take is being tossed into the trash can, according to a food waste study I did with the EPA in 2016).

Is there anything that can tie these silos together to make real change happen in our school dining centers? The ONE ingredient that can and will bring all the silos into one congruent shared vision is scratch cooking.  Scratch cooking in schools is where it needs to start in order to help students learn how to make healthy food choices for life.

This may sound easy enough, but it is not. The system is stacked against scratch cooking. Commodity purchasing and the reimbursable meal program (USDA) make it nearly impossible to produce good tasting, healthy meals. A majority of schools rely on the reimbursable meal program as well as the trend to fast, convenient, processed foods that so many of us have become accustomed to.

My partners in sustainable school food and I have worked in school food environments nationwide for many years. During this time, we have learned that people simply need to get back to the basics of cooking foods from scratch (without being held hostage to commodity programs) in order to make real change. Wholesome, good-tasting food can be the catalyst to make a difference throughout the school and into the community. 

We have developed a proven process to achieve the goal of serving fabulous school food in a sustainable system. The following steps build sustainable food systems that engage all members of the school community.

Step 1 - Assess Reality
To start the process, we need to identify how a school currently approaches its food service. Our first step is to perform an assessment where we make on-site observations and ask questions to determine the current reality is in the school.

Step 2 – Determine the Vision and Develop the Strategy
Once we know the lay of the land, we then develop a vision for the future. We meet with members of the kitchen staff, students, parents, school administration, and some community members to determine what is important to the school community as it pertains to food, sustainability, and engagement.  We find that it helpful to let people vent their frustrations and then let them talk about all that they are trying to accomplish and what they have already tried to lead students to make healthy food choices as well as be good stewards of the earth. The feedback is used to lay out a strategy with benchmarks, so there are clear outcomes and quantifiable results.

Step 3 – Implement the Strategy and Engage the School Community    
Once the strategy is developed, we make sure that all stakeholders are in agreement. Then it’s time to implement the strategy, engage the school community and start COOKING! It is critical to track all data points so that progress can be continuously measured. We also identify where any funding may be needed to improve the kitchen equipment or facility. To be the most effective in driving food and sustainability education throughout the school, we often suggest to our school clients that they consider hiring a green team coordinator to lead these education initiatives.

Source the Ingredients First –Then Build the Menu Based on those Ingredients
Flavorful meals are the result of fresh ingredients. Therefore, by determining which local ingredients are in-season and best priced, it is possible to source meal components that are optimal for cooking great tasting meals from scratch that students will love!  This way of planning is not a common practice in many commercial kitchens today. It takes time, preparation, and lots of practice to get there, but once this method is in place it leads to sourcing more local foods which taste better than foods that have traveled great distances.  It’s no secret that eating flavorful foods that taste great is more enjoyable. 

Once we establish our ingredient base we can then plan the menu.  When the menu is built based on the ingredients, similarly to the way upscale restaurants source seasonal ingredients and build the menu, the result is better tasting food.

We also believe in eliminating variety. Let there be one fabulous entrée a day that kids will eat, with a fantastic salad bar, with homemade dressings, hard boiled eggs, maybe even a ‘make your own sandwich’, for those that don’t want the entrée. Reducing variety and waste will offset any additional funding it may take to serve fresh foods from scratch. We have demonstrated that a scratch-cooking foodservice program can be achieved with the funding that is already in place.

Once the menu has been built and we know what we want to cook, serve, store and hold for different day parts, then the kitchen may be assessed to determine if any remodeling will be needed. Most people go to remodeling first because it looks like something is happening. But if you don’t assess and design based on menu, these decisions will result in wasting money or overspending. A peak into existing school districts will reveal that most kitchens are underutilized based upon how the district currently feeds students. Resources are literally being wasted.

Start Cooking!
Once the ingredients are sourced and the menu is planned then we start cooking! Here is where the edge of the knife comes in. It must be sharp and fast (or get fast).  Fresh ingredients heading towards local and organic are key to success. Direction and leadership for the kitchen team will result in confidence that they can ‘scratch-cook’ in real-time so the food is served at the height of flavor, it looks great and kids eat it! The act(s) of growing, harvesting, cooking and eating are at the center of all we are. The act of cooking homemade meals stirs memories, makes memories and creates a social well being (of sorts) that instills so many healthy things in our lives. The bottom line is that we need to see happy people wielding knives and cutting boards in the kitchen. There is a special kind of joy a child feels when they see someone cares enough to take the time and effort to cook a good meal or bake a fresh treat.  The other by-product is happy, proud employees.

Measure Waste
Waste measurement is key to identifying success or failure in the front and back of the house. The information must be processed (used) regularly to be of value.  In one study (Punahou School on Oahu in 2008). Student waste was measured for several days. One day the waste was pushing 40%. Since it was the last day we let students know why we were weighing the waste. Several felt the need to explain the reason for their waste that particular day. It led to some very interesting conversation about why food was wasted. In this case, (40%) tofu was the main entrée (commodity) and it was slathered in teriyaki sauce. The kids simply ate around it.

The old adage ‘the way to a man’s heart is though his stomach’ is still true today except that it should be modified to say ‘the way to a healthy heart is through healthy food and lifestyle. Studies have shown that having a chef or culinary presence in the school cafeteria to interact with students through taste tests and demonstrations is beneficial. A 2012 study conducted in Boston Public Schools found that middle school students eating in school cafeterias with chefs/culinary leadership were more likely to eat whole grains, and consumed more servings of vegetables per day than students in cafeterias without chefs.

In the end it’s all about serving great food in a sustainable system. Responsibility is not on the food service workers alone, but rather it is a shared responsibility with the school and families as well. Growing happy, healthy children should be integrated into every aspect of the school and at home. Involving stakeholders creates ownership and food can be the common thread. Schools across the country are struggling to keep enrollment up due to charter schools and open enrollment. Parents and students have more choices that ever. All things being equal food quality can play an important role in the decision-making process.

Devising a new strategy for great school food takes commitment, but it is worth the hard work to have healthy students who are engaged and better prepared to learn. It is possible to aim for a higher standard for the students we are feeding and honor the earth for giving us sustenance, and each other by remembering that we did not get to the fast paced, processed food world overnight. By combining our commitment, respect, determination, and hard work, our children will learn about healthy food choices.

About the Author:

Chef Greg Christian is a sustainable food service consultant, chef, author and entrepreneur. His company, Beyond Green Sustainable Food Partners, measures strategies and solutions for organizations interesting in making the switch to more sustainable food service platforms. Learn more at

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