By Douglas J. Peckenpaugh, Culinary Editor & Community Director of Content
Traditionally, school foodservice has maintained a rather unflattering reputation akin to representing the lowest common culinary denominator. After all, you have to get the students to eat, and—historically—standard-fare nuggets, pizza and fries fit the bill.
But palates—even of the youngest of Americans—are changing. And with the ever-pressing concern of childhood obesity at the forefront of our nation’s consciousness, along with recent changes made to the regulations related to school meals, school-foodservice directors have begun rising to the task of crafting menus that deliver customizable, kid-approved flavor and strong nutritional rubrics, all while staying within notoriously tight budgets.
Customized and local
The sophistication of Americans’ palates has not been limited to the adult population, and school foodservice has been working to align this development with necessary nutritional concerns.
“The biggest trend in our schools this year is an increase in vegetarian foods and salad bars," says Timothy Cipriano, executive director of food services, New Haven Public Schools, New Haven, CT. The addition of salad bars to the system came via Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools (see saladbars2schools.org). In the future, he notes, New Haven schools intend to reduce the amount of meat offered and increase plant-based proteins through use of legumes, and by incorporating pasta made with semolina, flaxseed, spelt, oats, barley and legumes into recipes.
“Dried peas and lentils offer a great source of protein, fiber and potassium in the diet, and they’re just starting to make their way into school foodservice," says Janice Rueda, Ph.D., director of health & nutrition, USA Dry Pea and Lentil Council, Moscow, ID. She notes that school foodservice directors are interested in using lentils “as a meat substitute for beef crumbles in tacos and spaghetti sauce," and has seen both partial and complete replacement of ground beef with lentils in these applications. “There are certain varieties of lentils that better maintain their shape when cooking, giving them a similar look and mouthfeel of ground beef," she says.
These mimicking abilities aren’t limited to meat analogues. Rueda cites fried potato products like hash browns and tater tots as possibilities, noting that “you can make a similar product using beans and/or dried peas and lentils."
Options like salad bars help open the doors to customization—a great way to get students invested into the school-dining experience. “One of the biggest trends in K-12 private school foodservice is ‘options’—providing students with the ability to select from a wide range of foods to customize their meals—at each station in the dining hall," says Susan Cooper, MS, RD, CDN, nutrition specialist, Flik Independent School Dining, Rye Brook, NY.
At the high schools in the Niles Township just north of Chicago, OrganicLife—the Chicago-based provider that manages the schools’ operations—has instituted a number of stations that offer customized deli sandwiches, Mediterranean-inspired dishes, burritos and salads, all while staying within a strict budget. It has also instituted self-imposed sustainability evaluations regarding food waste, energy use, and level of local and organic ingredient sourcing.
Cooper notes that one new, popular culinary program involves the introduction of adventuresome new foods to students. “This year, street foods from around the world are featured each month. March, for example, is panipuri, a popular, bite-sized street food from India," she says. Panipuri is generally made from chiles, chaat masala, potatoes, tamarind, onions, chickpeas and water; the water is often flavored with lemon juice, tamarind, dates or mint. “Last year, cuisine and signature dishes from celebrity chefs were featured each month," she says.
Concepts like local and natural are trickling into more-youthful age brackets. “In November, Chicago Public Schools began serving local chicken raised without antibiotics to students in 473 schools," says Ayde Lyons, director of communications, Chartwells School Dining Services, Rye Brook, NY. “The district’s new scratch-cooked chicken program includes about 1.2 million pounds from Amish farms that do not use antibiotics, for a total of about 2 million pounds of fresh chicken in the 2011 to 2012 school year. One of our major initiatives has been focused on increasing our use of local produce. Approximately 7% of our produce volume is now local, almost double what it was a year ago, but we are still looking to improve ‘local’ availability."