Made from scratch

Tahoe Truckee Unified School District hatches a new food plan for its students

Hot lunches—elementary kids get them every school day, sometimes twice a day. All they have to do is line up, pick up a tray and chow down. Seems simple. Where it gets complicated is preparing all that food—when they get it and what it does to their growing bodies after they eat it.

The Tahoe Truckee Unified School District, which covers Truckee and the California side of North Lake Tahoe, has gone through some serious soul-searching to answer these questions. Over the last few years, the school has revamped their whole food program to bring home-cooked meals to the students. The challenge is to do it within a limited food budget, meet the national food program requirements and put food on plates that will actually be eaten by the kids.

In June 2010 the TTUSD food department came out with new guidelines for the school lunch program:

Meals will be prepared from scratch.

Meals will emphasize whole grains, and fresh seasonal produce, with a commitment to a fruit and vegetable dish included in every lunch.

No high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated fats, and meals will be prepared with the least possible amount of additives, coloring and preservatives.

Milk provided will be hormone-free.

No fried foods.

A hot vegetarian entrée option will be available each day.

Cooking from scratch is perhaps the biggest change in the food program. If you cook from scratch, not only do you have control over everything that goes into the meal, but you can also use fresh produce and meat in the preparation. In the past, food was pre-packaged, transferred to the school, then heated up just in time for lunch. Once you start with a piece of raw chicken, however, you are looking at a whole new ballgame. The staff needed to learn new skills, and a series of food safety rules and preparation guidelines had to be developed. Cooking is more difficult and time consuming than just warming something up in the oven, but it also tastes better—although that might not be immediately apparent to the kids—and is usually better for you, reducing the consumption of preservatives.

The program has tremendous potential for improving the health of kids and reducing the obesity epidemic, but it also comes with some real challenges. Buying healthy food in bulk is more difficult and expensive, but the biggest challenge is to get kids, many of whom have been raised on chicken McNuggets and Big Gulps, to eat healthy. Many kids are picky eaters, and they are social eaters as well—they look to their friends when it comes to what is cool to eat and what is not cool to eat.

Cafeteria supervisor Cindy Vogelsberger says that to make sure kids are eating what you put out, “You have to sell the food and make it interactive.”

“We have gotten heavily into doing soups, fajitas, lot of fresh vegetables, and the kids love pizza from scratch,” she says.

Kids at the middle school and high school enjoy the salad bars because they get a wide selection and they get to decide what and how much to eat. They constantly reinvent the program to make sure kids will eat what is dished up.

While the new program is a lot of work, Vogelsberger thinks it’s worth it.

“The kids are receptive and they like the hearty meals that don’t come out of a box,” she says. “The teachers and administrators have been very supportive as well. After all, they get to eat the healthy food too.”