Greg Christian, founder of Beyond Green, a sustainable foodservice consultancy, has worked with a handful of schools to source food locally, develop on-site learning gardens and return to a made-from-scratch cooking platform.

Christian has talked about his training program for scratch cooking in previous FE&S articles. Christian has trained the "lunch ladies" of years past to become real cooks, teaching them basic knife skills and creative ways to use equipment, such as cooking "stir fries" in convection ovens and setting up a "quesadilla" line by sautéing vegetables and chicken breast and filling and folding warmed tortillas a la minute.

From an equipment standpoint, Christian and Stafford have looked to flexible, multi-use equipment that doesn't require as much labor to help these foodservice operators create different meals in larger batches from scratch. In many instances, fryers are basically nonexistent. And schools now opt for better refrigeration versus standard freezers for storing fresh produce and other foods.

Sourcing Locally

Christian has been a long-time proponent of local food, especially in school foodservice. Knowing that budgets don't always allow for meals made with 100 percent of its ingredients sourced within a 100-mile radius, he'll often recommend that the schools start with a blend of some local with some commodity foods, increasing over time with proper planning.

Commodity food has long been the source of politics in school foodservice, Stafford points out. "Everyone is trying to be more conscientious about sourcing locally, but there is nothing in the way of subsidies for that right now," he says, noting that there have been some USDA grants for local food. Still, commodity purchases pay back more. "A lot of districts are handcuffed on commodity products so there are limitations as to what they can buy and prepare."

Salad bars and refrigerated prep tables are also making their foray in the K-12 segment as a way to showcase local produce when it can be sourced. Rather than offering pre-packaged salads, Stafford has seen the increase of self-serve salad bars stocked with fresh vegetables and homemade dressings.

Christian, as founder of the Organic School Project, has worked with a number of schools to develop their own onsite gardens as a source for food, but also as a way to help children learn about healthy foods and where they come from.

Culinary Programs

Ironically, while the school foodservice has had a notoriously negative reputation for serving less-than quality food and despite commodity food challenges, students are becoming more sophisticated in their tastes and interest in the culinary world.

"Another change in school foodservice, particularly at the high school level, is the addition or expansion of culinary arts programs," Stafford says. In addition to or in lieu of the home ec kitchens of years past that may have featured a basic, residential range, microwave, and fridge, these new culinary arts kitchens basically represent smaller versions of the type of commercial kitchens found in most college-level culinary arts programs.

Similar to onsite gardens offering learning and production capabilities, these programs offer another educational opportunity for students. "Many of these schools have cooking competitions, including some state and national championships where the kids compete with other high schools," Stafford says. "I think this has to do with the fact that students are seeing culinary all around them, and especially from watching television and all the food shows."

In fact, he adds, these programs have strict requirements for acceptance and many have long waitlists. "The demand is so high now for these culinary arts programs, and in some cases the district has a demand that has far exceeded capability," he says. "There might be three high schools in a district who want culinary arts kitchens, but they can only afford to build one."

These commercial culinary arts kitchens – in some cases more decked out than the foodservice kitchen itself – are also being used for fundraisers and other after-school events, where students cook and serve in yet another learning opportunity, Stafford says.

In terms of budgeting for these expanded culinary programs, many schools keep them separate from the main foodservice kitchen so there's more opportunity for work. Stafford often works with two or three entities, from the school nutrition services director to the director of the culinary program to at one point, even the student store director when he set up an espresso bar out of the bookstore. "I'm dealing with all kinds of people in the school now, and I'm busier than ever before," he says. "These programs have really changed the scope of what we're doing in high schools now. When I get a new school I'm always hoping that they have or want a culinary arts program."