Lunch ladies going gourmet as food gets new look

Cafeterias in schools make over the menus

Chef Daniel Young chooses the winning fruit salad tray made by Denver public schools food-service personnel during a half day of instruction on how to use fresh foods to make healthier options for students. (Associated Press)Chef Daniel Young chooses the winning fruit salad tray made by Denver public schools food-service personnel during a half day of instruction on how to use fresh foods to make healthier options for students. (Associated Press)

DENVER | They still wear sensible shoes, but the nation’s lunch ladies are trading in their hairnets for chef toques as they undergo a gourmet makeover.

With the childhood obesity rates creating demand for healthier foods in schools, more attention is being placed on the culinary skills of those charged with preparing it. What good are fresh local produce and grass-fed beef, for example, if the lunchroom employees only know how to make canned vegetables and frozen fish sticks?

“It’s more work to cook from scratch, no doubt,” said Dawn Cordova, a longtime school cafeteria worker attending Denver public schools’ first “scratch cooking” training this summer.

Miss Cordova and about 40 other Denver lunch ladies spent three weeks mastering knife skills, baking and chopping fruits and vegetables for some of the school district’s first salad bars.

Denver is among countless school systems in at least 24 states working to revive proper cooking techniques in its food service staff.

The city issued its 600 or so cafeteria employees white chefs’ coats and hats and plans to have all its kitchen staff trained in basic knife skills within three years. Well-known area chefs visit for primers on food safety, chopping technique and making healthy food more appetizing to young diners. (Hint: Kids prefer vegetables cut into funky shapes, not boring carrot sticks).

It’s serious work. School cafeterias are the front line in an effort to reduce childhood obesity as public health officials warn that nearly a third of American children and teens are now considered obese or overweight. First lady Michelle Obama started a “Chefs Move to Schools” program in June to highlight the need for better cooks in schools, and she is urging Congress to pass legislation that calls for higher nutritional standards for school meals.

The child nutrition bill would require more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and less fat and salt in school lunches and breakfasts, Mrs. Obama wrote in an essay in Monday’s edition of The Washington Post.

For lunch ladies seeking new skills, “boot camps” are booming from California to New York.

“Demand is so high we can barely keep up with it,” said Kate Adamick, a school-food consultant from New York City who started “Cook For America” lunch lady boot camps four years ago. Her business is so swamped with requests that she’s having a hard time even training new trainers to perform school-food cooking seminars.

More culinary schools are looking beyond hotels and fine restaurants to send their students, and professors, to K-12 cafeterias as well.

“You have some great cooks in school cafeterias, but just like a chef at any restaurant, you get in a rut of doing the same thing every day because it’s convenient and it works. You think, ‘We’ll just make chicken nuggets again because it’s easy and they’ll eat it,’” said Michael McGreal, head of the culinary arts program at Joliet Junior College in Joliet, Ill.

Mr. McGreal works as a mentor to the food-service department at Chicago public schools, sharing menu tips and ideas for getting more fresh food on school trays. Lunch ladies, he said, are eager to cook healthier once they learn how to do it.

“It’s not any kind of crazy skill needed. They can turn around and do it tomorrow if we teach them,” he said.

Time is a big concern for lunch ladies charged with feeding balanced meals to hundreds of picky kids in as little as 20 minutes. The frenzied pace is blamed for the lunch-line horrors everyone remembers. Soggy vegetables. Canned-fruit medleys. Rubbery pizza languishing under a hot lamp.

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