Food service steps up to the plate
February 8, 2012
The menu board reads Pork Fried Rice, Green-Bean and Corn Casserole, with a side of fruit.
In the kitchen, food-service worker Tom Tehan skins and cuts fresh pineapple, saving even the scraps for inspection, while cook Meredith Corder prepares the pork-fried rice on a grill, carefully portioning out each serving before frying to ensure the right amount of food is being made.
Their food-service “customers” are the students at each of the five schools that make up the East Grand School District.
As the cost of labor and food increases each year in this highly regulated department of the school system, the food-service budget remains strained.
Meanwhile, government demands a certain standard of nutrition in school lunches, a national movement to curb childhood obesity by influencing the nation’s youth to eat better.
Schools receive state funding for free or reduced-priced lunches, which cost 40 cents each for students of low-income families. But attached to that funding are requirements that schools serve reduced fat, low-sodium, and trans-fat-free lunches.
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Each month, the inventory, recipes, and student counts of the lunch kitchen are reviewed by the Colorado Department of Education, and this week the food-service department is undergoing a standard three-year audit to ensure it is in step with government regulations – from use of commodity foods to use of salt.
Meanwhile, the East Grand School Board is concerned about the food-service department’s budget, an enterprise fund that reflects $26,000 over-budget supplemented by the general fund.
As many as 6,099 fewer meals were served to students from August to December compared to the 2010-2011 school year, and board members want to know why.
At the kitchen of the East Grand School District, gone are the days of removing frozen chicken nuggets from a box and heating them up for lunch on a regular basis.
Food Director Joe Cisneros, in his third year on the job, is serving food made from scratch.
In fact, the very first time chicken nuggets are being served this school year is on Feb. 29, along with corn on the cob, a macaroni salad and some fruit.
“It should be a big day,” Cisneros said, “we’ll have a lot of sales.”
This illustrates the challenges Cisneros faces: Healthier food made from scratch just doesn’t have the appeal to today’s youngsters, at least not like a plate of chicken nuggets.
During lunch on Monday at the East Grand Middle School, 6th-grader Ivan Teter didn’t like the whole-wheat bun that came with his sloppy Joe. Most days, he prefers the pizza from the a la carte menu, along with the sale of chips and low-sugar fruit drinks the school provides at a separate concession area.
For $2.75, Teter pointed out, he could buy a big slice of pizza versus the plate of food in the standard school lunch.
These less-than-healthy but popular a-la-carte options at both the middle school and high school at East Grand literally save the district’s food-program budget, according to Cisneros and East Grand Superintendent Nancy Karas.
On Tuesday, Feb. 7, the school lunch menu would include a favorite among students: homemade pizza and a salad bar.
But Madison Larison said she wished the school wouldn’t serve spinach in its salads. She doesn’t like spinach, she said.
When Colin Van Natta, another 6th-grader, sat down at the lunch table, he complained he only got three potato wedges on his tray.
As part of the nation’s goal to have children eating right, lunches are deliberately portioned according to age group to reflect the amount of food needed for where students are developmentally, according to Karas.
May said he would like to see more waffles on the menu, for breakfast or lunch.
The long wait at the lunch line is a main reason Skyler Carey avoids eating the school lunch, she said. And Kathryn Thompson avoids the school lunches because she needs gluten- and dairy-free meals.
Emily Jenson would rather eat a sandwich, apple, and a piece of chocolate for lunch, which she brings from home each day. Lindsey Dornbusch also prefers a sack lunch to the school lunches. She ate microwaved macaroni and cheese among her peers. But if the school served chicken nuggets, Dornbusch would likely buy a school lunch – “Yum,” she said.
Out of the total class of 6th-graders who came in from recess, about half filed into a line to get the school lunch.
“What is happening in the nation now is schools are trying to change the culture that food in schools is just bad food. I think it’s good for our country, but if we’re trying to appeal to kids, it’s a whole new challenge,” Cisneros said of the push to serve healthier, home-cooked foods.
He estimates about 90 to 95 percent of the food served at East Grand is made from scratch rather than from pre-made and packaged products. He and three other food servers took a week-long seminar in Denver recently called “Cook for America,” a national program during which food-service workers meet with professional chefs to learn how to make good, healthy foods from scratch.
Rather than throw it on a pan and heat it up, food service workers are now using equipment in the kitchen to its fullest, equipment augmented from grants and general-fund dollars in the past year, to make items such as dressings from scratch, meat sauces, and soups. Added equipment such as a salad spinner, gas stovetop, and slicer have had “a major effect on the food we’re producing,” Cisneros said.
“My labor costs would have been double if I didn’t have this equipment.”
Even so, “Our budget woes are more in our labor than in our food, even though food goes up every year in cost,” he said.
At East Grand, all lunches are made in the food-service kitchen at the high school, then lunches are transported to each of the four other schools.
Out of a total staff of 10, upon cooking meals in the mornings, workers are needed to transport the lunches in temperature-controlled containers to each of the schools, heat them to a designated temperature before service, then serve, clean up, then bring equipment back each day.
“It’s labor-intensive to make sure all the kids in our schools get served a safe meal,” Karas said.
And Cisneros needs to account for every single meal served. If the margin of error is too wide, he gets written up by the state.
And any school lunch budget relies on the use of some commodities, which government provides to schools. East Grand pays only for the price of shipping to receive items such as meats, cheeses, beans, fruits and vegetables – frozen, canned or preferably fresh – to use in its regular lunch program. Commodities cannot be used in the a la carte lunch offerings, since such offering do not meet the state’s criteria of healthy lunches.
For Cisneros, the challenge lies in using the commodities in ways that appeal to students, and showing proof of how and how much each commodity was used in lunches.
Raising the prices of the lunches may help the budget, but such a decision is not a simple one. A price change needs to be approved by the state. Currently, lunches are priced at $2.50 at elementary schools, $2.75 at high school and middle school and $3.50 for adults. But would raising prices mean fewer students participating in the program?
Getting the word out about the lunch program, continuing to cross-train his staff, providing more opportunities for scratch-cooking through training and seminars, and overcoming a perceived “stigma” about school lunches are all goals Cisneros has. Having working in the food industry for 47 years, which includes 20 years as general manager of Moffat Station at Winter Park Resort after having worked in the hospital-food industry, Cisneros says school lunches may be the most challenging in his career for the amount of regulation and paperwork they entail.
To overcome these challenges, Cisneros has introduced sample tastings at the schools so students can find out what certain lunch items taste like. In the case of a chicken gumbo soup recently, this strategy worked, he said. Students who wouldn’t normally have eaten the school lunch came for the soup they had tried, he said.
And Cisneros offers other pursuits to grow the lunch program, such as inviting parents or other community members to purchase school lunches, and the food-service department catering events in the community.
“If people really looked at that menu of food made from scratch – with controlled fats, controlled sodiums, at that price – they couldn’t get that anywhere else,” Karas said.
– Tonya Bina can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19603