The scent of fresh-baked biscuits filled the kitchen at Stratford Academy on a September morning. While one cafeteria helper loaded trays of bacon into the oven for the upcoming breakfast break, two others chopped up piles of squash, carrots and Brussels sprouts.
In the Stratford cafeteria, students can choose from more than just pizza and peanut butter sandwiches. The school’s lunch menu features gourmet offerings like grilled chicken saltimbocca, brown sugar-glazed carrots, a full salad bar and a deli sandwich station.
Kids also can get french fries and turkey sandwiches, if they want to stick to the basics. But if students are willing to try something new, they’ve got plenty of options.
Chef Shan Speilberg doesn’t have positive memories of the lunches he grew up eating at school. He remembers square pizza slices and mystery meat hamburgers “that seemed kind of suspicious.” But as the new director of dining services for Stratford and Mount de Sales Academy, Speilberg’s goal is to reimagine what a school lunch can be.
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“I think the sky’s the limit,” he said. “If you have a great chef and you have a great team that can put together absolutely anything, then, that’s — you can go anywhere. You can have food that you would get at a fine dining restaurant in a school cafeteria.”
Speilberg and his executive chef, Amelia DeAngio, are both formally trained chefs with years of experience in the food industry. With stalks of fresh-picked thyme and a dollop of Greek yogurt, they’re determined to break down the stereotypes that often give school lunch a bad wrap.
“My emphasis is always on giving them an alternative,” DeAngio said. “So, instead of fried chicken, we do roast chicken. You know, I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I don’t want to give them something so new and foreign that they’re not even going to try it. I want it to be approachable but also healthy.”
The shift toward more nutritional, less processed school meals reflects a larger movement among nutrition directors in both public and private education. Bibb County schools stopped frying foods years ago, and Executive Director of Nutrition Timikel Sharpe said the district often opts for healthy swaps, like whole wheat sandwich buns and oven-baked sweet potato fries.
Neighboring Baldwin County School District won a statewide award last month for its farm to school program. Its menus regularly feature locally grown produce, and students are encouraged to try new fruits and vegetables through in-class taste testings.
In private school cafeterias with bigger budgets, chefs like Speilberg and DeAngio have even more room to stretch the limits of school dining. They can trade frozen produce for fresh, prepare their salad dressings by hand and grill hamburgers made from 100 percent beef patties.
“We’re chefs. We’re cooks. We want to be in the kitchen. We want to make good food,” DeAngio said. “And I think that, if given the choice, every person who works in a kitchen would rather make fresh green beans than open a can. So, I think it’s the natural direction of where our society is going these days anyway, you know, a more — a stronger emphasis on local and organic and healthy and not overly processed.”
It’s all about options
Holly Leskovics remembers paying a dollar at school for a little green tray with a square of cold pizza, a carton of milk and a bowl of canned fruit. Now a teacher at Stratford with three of her children at the school, she loves getting lunch there through the faculty meal plan each day.
“I’m usually a salad bar girl, but their salad bar is amazing,” Leskovics said. “I mean, you can get anything you want. They have three different types of lettuce, they have the spring, the romaine, and the spinach fresh every day. They have every kind of veggie you could imagine you want on there.”
Leskovics said she tells her kids they’re “absolutely spoiled” to get such good food at school. If she could, she’d let them buy lunch from the cafeteria every day. But she limits them to one meal a week, for budgeting reasons. The average lunch costs $7 to $8, and she said that when you multiply that by three, it adds up.
Still, Leskovics encourages her kids buy lunch at school because they often discover something new.
“The minute they tell me they love something, I’m like, ‘All right, let’s try it at home!’ You know, anything I can get them to eat more of that’s better for them, I’ll do it,” she said.
When students learn to eat healthy food at school, it can change the choices they make in the future, Stratford cafeteria helper Emaunya Stephens said. As long as vegetables are well-seasoned and look appetizing, she said, they’ll try it.
Stephens didn’t eat vegetables in high school.
“We didn’t have many vegetables in high school, for me, or they probably did, but it didn’t look good, so I didn’t eat it,” she said. “So I just stuck to the pizza and the hamburgers and french fries line.”
Sometimes students get nervous to try a new vegetable when they see it on the lunch line for the first time. The first time the cafeteria served Brussels sprouts, kids were skeptical.
“I was like, ‘OK, y’all. Y’all just gotta try it one time,’ ” Stephens said “Then after that, they keep asking for it and asking for it.”
The key, DeAngio said, is to provide options.
“If you give them the choice, they’re gonna — yeah, a few of them are gonna go with what they know. They’re gonna get the chicken tenders, they’re gonna get the pepperoni pizza,” she said. “But the ones that are curious and the ones that are experimental, they’re gonna be, like, ‘Hey, actually, you know what? I wanna try that curry chicken. And then hopefully they like it and come back for the different thing next time.”
DeAngio wasn’t sure that her coconut curry chicken would be a hit, since most students had never tasted it before. But the line was out the door that day, and the dish sold out.
Students don’t always pick the healthy option, Speilberg said. Stratford goes through about 20 pizza pies each day, and the cafeteria sells more servings of macaroni and cheese than roasted tilapia.
But Speilberg always keeps tasting cups on hand, and encourages students to try everything.
“If they’re like, ‘Oh, I’ve never had that,’ I’m like, ‘Well, here, try a little bit,’ ” Speilberg said. “And if they like it, or if they like the flavor, I’m like, ‘Well, get it for lunch today instead of the pizza and fries.’”
As fresh as it gets
Every Tuesday and Thursday at 7:15 a.m., a group of students gathers in the produce garden at Mount de Sales to weed, plant and harvest. The school decided to plant the garden two summers ago to give students a chance to engage with their food in a hands-on way.
Stalks of bell peppers and jalapenos sprouted from the beds, and a mound of herbs grew in the back corner. When DeAngio needs a few sprigs of rosemary for her pot roast or wants to pickle some banana peppers for the deli station, she can walk out to the garden and pluck them from the soil.
Students get excited when they see the words “Mount de Sales grown” on the menu, DeAngio said.
“When they brought us two milk crates of sweet potatoes, we immediately turned them into, like, sweet potato casserole, and we sold out in an hour,” she said. “We didn’t even get to high school. Like, the middle schoolers just scarfed it up.”
Maintaining a garden might not be a possibility at all schools, she said. It takes money, time and labor. And not all students are eager to wake up at the crack of dawn to work the soil before class.
But DeAngio thinks the payoff is worth it. It gives students the chance to see where their food comes from and try new produce they’ve never seen before.
“Not many people have ever even had lemon balm,” DeAngio said. “So if I can teach a student, like, ‘Hey, try this. Just put it in your mouth. Like, it’s good, I promise.’ And you can teach them, like, what green goddess is and how to make Ranch dressing that doesn’t come out of a jar. It’s easy, and the kids really like saying that, ‘I grew this, and now I’m eating it.’ It’s really cool.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member and reports for The Telegraph with support from the News/CoLab at Arizona State University. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/samantha.max.9 and on Twitter @samanthaellimax. Learn more about Report for America at www.reportforamerica.org.