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Cafeteria Cooking: A New Era In VT Schools

Karyl Kent (Richmond Elementary), David Horner (Chittenden East), and Alison Forrest (Brewster Pierce Elementary, Huntington), school nutrition directors holding the new school cookbook they contributed to. Photo: Caroline Abels

Written by Bonnie North

We all know that “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” Similarly, as any parent knows, you can put good, healthy food on kids’ lunch plates but that’s no guarantee they’ll actually eat it.

But who can blame them? Consider what they’re used to.

In early 2010, Washington Post reporter Ed Bruske visited the public school his daughter attended.

“The ‘scrambled eggs’ had been cooked in a factory in Minnesota, then shipped frozen in six-pound plastic bags to the District of Columbia. Getting them to the breakfast line was a simple matter of dumping the frozen eggs out of their bags and into stainless steel pans, then heating them in the kitchen’s commercial steamer. They come out looking more like pale yellow cottage cheese…ingredients included modified corn starch, xanthan gum, citric acid, artificial butter flavor, lipolized butter oil, and medium chain triglycerides.”

Here in Vermont, a consortium of dedicated individuals and organizations has created an elegant and remarkably effective tool that is turning such dismal results completely around. Published last year, New School Cuisine: Nutritious and Seasonal Recipes for School Cooks by School Cooks is a 206-page, full-color, spiral-bound collection of creative, healthy recipes that have proven popular in our regional schools. Not only that, these “from scratch” recipes were developed by Vermont school cooks themselves, and they rely on locally available, in-season products.

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The Vermont cookbook was the brainchild of Kathy Alexander, food nutritionist at Mt. Abraham High School in Bristol. Kathy was all too aware of the challenges of getting kids to enjoy healthier food, but she could also point to some real successes achieved by school cooks and nutritionists in Vermont who had been working with various “farm-to-school” programs and had developed their own recipes using local, in-season produce. Kathy brought her idea of putting together a simple cookbook of recipes to Abbie Nelson, education coordinator at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) and the director of Vermont Food Education Every Day (VT FEED). Of course Abbie jumped at the idea right away.

They understood that their cookbook had to be beautiful, practical, and not academic if it was going to actually be used. They wanted the book to have an honest, homespun feeling, so as to reinforce that these were not recipes handed down like edicts from afar. More important, the cookbook had to dispel the belief that school cafeteria food had to be bland, unappealing, and boring. And to adhere to the 2012 federal dietary guidelines, every recipe needed to present complete nutrition information. For example, a recipe for Mac & Trees, a casserole of macaroni and cheese with broccoli florets, would have to be listed as providing fifty 353-calorie servings, each containing 1.5 ounces of a meat alternative (cheese), 1 ounce of grain (whole-wheat macaroni), and 1/8 cup of a dark green vegetable (broccoli).

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New School Cuisine was distributed to every public school in Vermont and to every state’s child nutrition department. The Vermont Agency of Education printed the first 500 copies. A short run by Minute Man Press was necessary to meet immediate demands, and a full second printing is currently in the works with Queen City Press of Burlington. Copies from the second printing will be available for order soon from Shelburne Farms’ website. At this point, advance orders are already in from schools in more than 20 states. A free printable version can also be downloaded at vtfeed.org.

Read the full article in Vermont's Local Banquet!


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