Mocking the Mock Chicken: The Business of Making School Food from Scratch
“School food” is an oxymoron, like “car wash donuts” or “DMV charcuterie.” Food is not a school’s business. It’s not what they exist to do. Adequate sustenance is an amenity that they are simply required to provide. The funds available to do so, regardless of their source, are startlingly limited. Can you prepare a delicious plate of food that costs less than a dollar?
I know, no one’s asking for braised short ribs with seared bok choy (grown on school property and picked by the hands of students). All we want is a piece of meat that ... I don’t know, tastes, looks and/or smells like ... meat! Is that too much to ask? Before we can answer that question, we must first ask: “Why on Earth do we think school food is supposed to be good?”
My entire business is based on the idea that scratch cooking is easy. But it’s not. I am the CEO and founder of the Milwaukee-based food service consulting firm, Sustainable Kitchens. We help commercial kitchens go scratch. Seems simple enough, right? And hell, food is important. Every- where. Work. Home. Everywhere you go, there is food. And it is supposed to be good. This is an expectation we all feel entitled to.
There is no shortage of appalled parents mobilizing their neighbors, hounding school officials and lambasting contracted food service providers, demanding quality—no, scratch that—decent—no, that’s not the word either—moderately acceptable assuming the standard is as low as human tastebuds will allow—food.
Many schools are built without kitchens. Let that sink in. In those instances where reasonable cooking facilities are present, they are often run down, outdated and poorly maintained.
Then, there’s labor. We know that school food service workers are generally unskilled in the Epicurean arts and paid as little as possible. They are also usually part-timers. They work the least number of hours necessary to do the job. And the job is to feed as many kids in as little time as possible.
None of this should come as a surprise. If you are interested in food or the food system, or you have children, you’ve likely looked at what they are fed and wondered, “Geez, is this the best we can do?” But there is a whole other problem no one talks about.
About a year ago, I was called into a small Wisconsin elementary school to conduct a site evaluation and identify opportunities to provide a better (and by better, I mean more nutritious) experience for the kids by way of the food that is cooked for them.
On offer this particular day was a vegetable stir-fry, chicken nuggets, brown rice and farm-fresh broccoli. You heard me right. Broccoli. Grown in Wisconsin dirt. Its presence on the lunch line was courtesy of a Herculean effort by a recently formed angry-parent group in partnership with the school’s food service director. They wanted to get something green and fibrous on the menu.
Pretty good, right? Wrong.
What do you suppose happens to a crate of gorgeous broccoli that shows up at the doorstep of an elementary school kitchen staffed by a brigade of un-culinary-skilled veteran lunch ladies, people without the faintest whisper of interest—not to mention time—to honor the painstakingly tended local veg with the respect it so cruci-furously deserved?
Not much. Put it this way, if you offered it to your dog, he’d likely say, “You know what? I’m good. I’ll stick to licking my butt.”
Cooking is viewed incorrectly as a trade. Like a plumber or electrician who is knowledgeable in the skill they are employed to perform and that knowledge has disposed them to do, at least, a passable job of executing the tenets of that vocation. This is not the case when it comes to cooking.
Upon arrival that morning, the broccoli had been dropped into a steam pan, hurled into a blazing-hot oven and cooked into the seventh layer of hell. What emerged (some three hours before actual service) was a steaming, smelly, swamp green heap of sadness. From there, it was wrapped airtight and launched into a hot holding cabinet where it would only first begin to know neglect.
Before long, hungry students marched into the cafeteria amid the sulfuric aromas that pushed out through the service window, foreshadowing the putridness of the meal that was to follow.
Quick little sidebar: kids do not have the option to decline the vegetables offered. They need one half-cup of veg on their trays for the school to receive their National School Lunch Program (NSLP)- defined reimbursement. In other words, they HAVE to take it. (They don’t have to eat it, though.)
You can see where this is going. One by one, the kids walked their partially empty trays of food to the dish room, tipped them forty-five degrees, and allowed the self-righteously-gotten broccoli to slide unceremoniously into the trash and out of its misery.
Every couple of years or so, there’s an article in The New York Times or The Washington Post about how some highfalutin former James Beard-winning chef is going to “take on food in schools.” As if the failure of the food served in schools has anything to do with the food. It doesn’t.
Once these self-anointed “Super Chefs” swoop in, proselytizing visions of newly food-infatuated children bolting through tall grass, chomping on local, sustainable, cage-free, free-range, Certified Humane celery sticks, they start to spend some real time under the hood and realize it’s a lot harder than it looks. In the end, what the schools are left with are menus that while always impressive sounding—are difficult to execute, fail to meet the NSLP guidelines an —most of all, are comprised of foods that kids simply don’t want to eat.
Here’s the good news: There is hope.
Sustainable Kitchens recently began sampling new menu items at a high school in Madison as part as of a pilot program to elevate offerings. The first question we asked ourselves was, “What did we like to eat when we were kids?” Pizza. Tacos. Mac n’ cheese. Burgers. Next, we wondered, “Can we do reasonably healthy versions of these things?” And, if so, “Can we design these dishes so that they are easy to make?”
“Oh, and can we make them cheap?”
We had our work cut out for us. If I were to simply list off the items we’ve prepared to date, you might think that there’s no way these items could’ve answered “yes” to these questions. Things like: steak and pesto flat- bread with roasted tomatoes and caesar salad; chicken and sausage jambalaya; Korean BBQ tacos; chicken nachos with roasted corn; black beans and chili-lime melon; pulled pork quesadillas; and chicken mac n’ cheese with sauteed green beans.
Healthy? All these dishes were credited against the NSLP standards and pass with flying colors.
Execution? All these items are prepared from scratch, using whole, raw proteins. We discovered magical USDA commodity products that are available to schools at a miniscule fraction of their retail cost— things like tomato paste. Many of our sauces, marinades or braising liquids use it as a base, and it has worked miracles for us. Our dishes center around a basic formula. Put stuff in a pot. Cook it. It doesn’t need to be more complex than that.
And cost? The dishes I listed all come in at a few pennies within a dollar, plus or minus. Our chicken nachos cost 77 cents per plate.
Our nacho cheese sauce is made with milk, spices, one part cheese and one part squash puree. I’m not going to tell you that you wouldn’t notice the inclusion of a bonafide vegetable in your cheese sauce, but once it’s topped with chicken, corn and black beans, you’ll be gosh-darned if it doesn’t taste downright delicious. The response from the kids has been overwhelming. “Thank you!” they say. “This food is lit!” (a personal favorite). The secret has been simple: accessible ingredients treated with love and presented in a recognizable way. We don’t cook over the kid’s heads or prepare things for them that we want them to want. We give them what they like: stuff that looks and tastes good.