A Boot Camp to Promote Healthy Food in Schools

The rigorous culinary training that Donna West attended in Aurora, Colorado, involved much more than cooking classes.

West is a lunchroom and child nutrition manager at Brownwood Elementary School in Scottsboro, Alabama. For five long days spent in a high school kitchen and classrooms, West and two dozen other public school food service workers immersed themselves in a course of study that encouraged participants to return home and trash the greasy chicken nuggets and packaged bean burritos.

Ravenous students, they were told, should instead be served fresh fruits and vegetables and entrées cooked from scratch. This much, West expected. What really inspired her about the Lunch Teachers Culinary Boot Camp was learning that food service professionals have enough power in their fingertips to save children’s lives.

“I learned that food service workers can be ambassadors of change,” says West, a member of the NEA Scottsboro ESP (Education Support Professionals). “We can nurture our students and their parents by educating them on making nutritional choices that are vital to a healthy lifestyle.”

The boot camp was conducted by Cook for America (CFA), a New York-based organization that trains school cooks, kitchen managers, and food service directors how to prepare healthy scratch-cooked meals for students, 300 and more at a time.

Participants also receive an historical overview of the U.S. school food system as well as instruction on basic knife skills, menu planning, time management, and foundational cooking techniques related to proteins, grains, and baked items. But back home, will students really choose green over greasy?

“It won’t change overnight,” says West. “It takes five to seven times of introducing a new item before most of them will even try it.”

CFA and other school cafeteria training efforts are viewed as a critical step towards professionalizing school cafeterias while promoting lighter, healthier menus. In addition to building culinary skills, the curriculum is designed to boost self-esteem and pride among food workers.

“A large majority of food service professionals live, shop and vote in the community where they work,” says West. “They have a connection that goes beyond the school building. Give them the skills-training and proper equipment necessary to serve healthy meals and they will rise to the challenge.”

Part of that challenge involves having roomy kitchens and sufficient storage capacity. Even during these difficult fiscal times, expenses for upgrading kitchens can be offset by savings from cooking meat on site, for example, rather than paying a processor. For food service professionals to implement fresh cooking, district officials must be willing to “modernize school kitchens and eating areas,” says West.

The 21st century school cafeteria can be a place of learning where children can be inspired by good food and nutritional information that they can take back into the classroom and their homes, according to CFA instructors.

“Public school officials need to recognize that children don’t stop learning just because they’re in the cafeteria,” says Kate Adamick, a chef and attorney who co-founded CFA with Andrea Martin, a chef and former New York City teacher. “Also, school officials need to educate themselves about the finances of school food operations. They need to stop believing the myth that serving scratch-cooked meals costs more money.”

Adamick and Martin have conducted boot camps since 2006 in more than 85 school districts in Colorado, California and other areas.  Though West is from Alabama, the majority of boot camp participants in Aurora were from Colorado. They were charged between $3,000 and $5,000 to attend the camp, much of that cost covered by Live Well Colorado, a nonprofit group that received funding for camp trainees from the Colorado Health Foundation.

“The fee is typically paid for by foundations and nonprofits,” says Adamick. “Spread out over the number of school meals prepared during a (food service worker’s) career, it’s only fractions of a cent per plate, fractions of a cent that transform school food into an effective solution to the national obesity crisis.”

At this time of year, with food holidays stacked up one after the other, West is anxious to put some of her culinary training to work on the 360 students and staff at Brownwood.

“A great meal for students might include fresh whole cuts of chicken cooked with real herbs and spices, not nuggets or tenders,” says West, who intends to lobby for white chef’s jackets and caps for herself and the other three “amazing” cafeteria workers at Brownwood. “To that, I would add fresh steamed broccoli, roasted carrots, and a whole wheat roll.”

And for dessert . . .

“They don’t need dessert every day or even every week,” West says. “Dessert should be saved for special occasions, especially in light of our nation’s obesity problem. We must become a nation that eats to live and not one that lives to eat.”

Photo: Cook for America