On October 31, I ate the best school lunch I’ve ever had…ever. I’m always happy to eat school lunch at Garnavillo, where Bev, Sharon, and Diana work in a large, airy lunchroom and make many of the meals for Clayton Ridge’s 5-8th graders from scratch. Scratch cooking has always been a part of the duties at this middle school lunch room, since with fewer students in the smaller school, school chefs can make smaller quantities and put more love (and more hard work!) into the menu items. Yet, the Garnavillo staff has done even more scratch cooking this year, as the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 has made healthier meals the goal of food service staff everywhere.
This year, Bev has planned menus to incorporate the components of MyPlate, and has used much of the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative’s Regional Seasonal Cycle Menu to make lunch healthier and tastier on a daily basis. Meeting the new regulations has meant a lot of changes; pastas are now whole wheat, as are baked items. Fruits and vegetables have become major components of meals, instead of just an afterthought. New requirements have meant that cooks work with new recipes and new ingredients to prepare meals, meeting calorie limits and cutting out fats, salts, and sugars.
The stellar meal I ate last month included a homemade baked macaroni and cheese (with real parmesan cheese baked in!), steamed broccoli (on the side, for dipping into the cheese), a homemade apple and cucumber salad, and a delightfully plump bunch of grapes. As I sat down to eat the meal in the school’s lunchroom, I couldn’t believe how delicious it was! The whole meal tasted like something I might purchase at a 5 star restaurant- and it filled me up! I was ecstatic; to me this seemed like the model for the healthiest, most delicious, scratch lunch a school could make. But, as I started to look around at the lunch trays at my table, I noticed that many of the kids had hardly touched any of it. In fact, many students hadn’t so much as taken a bite of the mac and cheese or the cucumber apple salad. Some threw it all away untouched. If I hadn’t eaten anything on my plate that day, I would have gone home hungry too.
Bev, Diana, and Sharon explained that the lunch that day was a great deal of work. They had prepared the noodles and taken great pains to try out the new mac and cheese recipe. In the old days, they would have bought highly processed mac and cheese that simply needed to be heated in the oven. The cucumber-apple salad required prep work to chop all of the ingredients and get the flavoring just right, whereas canned applesauce or a canned green vegetable would have been much easier to prepare and serve.
I was disheartened by the students’ reactions, and I’m sure the ladies in the kitchen were as well. Since that day, I’ve given some presentations to Clayton Ridge’s Middle School students to teach them about how (and why) school lunch regulations have changed. I hope they learn how much work these changes have been for their kitchen staff, and how lucky they are to have cooks who not only strive to keep them healthy, but go the extra mile to cook tasty meals from scratch. School food doesn’t always get a good rap, but this year at Garnavillo, school food has been great food. Like Bev, Sharon, and Diana, I hope that students open their minds and try it!