CONCORD, Calif. (AP) — As the gourmet chef served samples of his latest recipes to her high school, Anahi Nava Flores gave her critique of a baguette sandwich with Toscano salami, organic Monterey Jack, arugula and a homemade basil spread: “These Pesto aioli is good!”
Classmate Kentaro Turner devoured deli-style pastrami on sourdough and moved on to free-range chicken simmered in chipotle broth with Spanish-style rice. “Everything is delicious!”
These are not words typically uttered in school canteens.
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The food served at the San Francisco suburb’s Mount Diablo Unified school system reflects a trend away from mass-produced, reheated meals. The lunch menus are filled with California fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats and recipes that defy the stereotype of inedible school lunches.
Among American schoolchildren, these students are in the fortunate minority. Preparing fresh meals requires significant investment and, in many areas, an overhaul of how school kitchens have functioned for decades. Inflation and supply chain disruptions have only made it harder for school nutrition directors, widening the gaps in access to affordable, quality food.
In addition, federal funds to increase lunchtime budgets have declined. The government last year ended a pandemic-era program that offered free school meals to all. Some states, like California, have paid to keep meals free for all students, but most states have returned to charging all but the neediest children for meals.
Funding increases from the California government have enabled Mount Diablo to buy fresher, locally sourced ingredients and hire chef Josh Gjersand, a veteran of Michelin-star restaurants. Local farms, bakers, dairies and fishermen now provide most of the ingredients for the district, which serves 30,000 students from affluent and low-income communities east of San Francisco.
On a January morning, student taste testers sampled Gjersand’s latest creations. His daily specials range from barbecue spare ribs to fresh red snapper on a whole wheat brioche bun.
“I love the idea of serving better food to students,” said Gjersand, who quit restaurants during the pandemic when serving a Wagyu beef-and-caviar crowd lost its luster. “School canteens should feel like restaurants, not fast food chains.”
School systems elsewhere can only dream of such offers.
“Financially, we’re dying,” said Patti Bilbrey, director of nutrition for the Scottsdale Unified School District in Arizona. It charges students $2.85 a lunch, but that’s nowhere near enough to cover the district’s costs.
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A staff shortage makes it impossible to cook more food from scratch, she said. The school relies on bulk goods that are delivered and then reheated. The pizza: “It’s ready; you just bake it.” The Spicy Chicken Sandwich: “They heat it up and put it on a bun.” The Corn Dogs: “You just have to wrap it,” she said.
Some students rate the food positively. “I eat spicy chicken every day. That’s my favorite,” said Hunter Kimble, a sixth grader at Tonalea Middle School, where nearly 80 percent of students are still eligible for free or discounted meals.
Eighth grader Araceli Canales is more critical. The school serves an orange chicken that she says makes her cringe. “The meat is a different color,” she said. Recently, Araceli was poking around at a chicken caesar salad for lunch and noticed the croutons were bland and tough. “The chicken tastes good, but I want them to cook it longer and add more seasoning.” When the doorbell rang, she threw most of her salad in the trash.
Not many schools can afford gourmet options like Mount Diablo’s, which also benefits from California’s year-round growing season. But school menus in several locations have improved over the past decade, with fresher ingredients and more ethnic dishes, School Nutrition Association spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner said.
However, the pandemic has created new obstacles.
In a national survey of 1,230 school nutrition directors, nearly all said the rising cost of food and supplies was their biggest challenge this year. More than 90 percent said they were facing supply chain and staffing bottlenecks.
The Food Association’s survey also found that students’ lunch debts are skyrocketing to schools that are charging meals again. The association is asking Congress to resume free breakfast and lunch nationwide.
“This is the worst and fastest debt accumulation I have seen in my 12 years in school nutrition,” said Angela Richey, director of nutrition for Minnesota’s Roseville and St. Anthony-New Brighton school districts, which serve about 9,400 students. They won’t turn away a hungry child, but the school meal debt has topped $90,000 this year and is growing at a rate of over $1,000 a day.
Preparing food from scratch is not only healthier but also cheaper, say many school nutrition directors.
But that only works if schools have kitchens. The 1980s saw a nationwide shift away from school canteens, ushering in an era of mass-produced, processed school lunches. Prepackaged meals delivered by foodservice companies meant schools could ditch full-time cafeteria and kitchen staff.
“If you don’t have a kitchen to chop up, there’s not much you can do with fresh vegetables,” said Nina Ichikawa, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, who is part of a team evaluating a California farm-to-school incubator grant. She describes California’s investments as undoing past damage.
In 2021, California committed to spending $650 million annually to supplement federal meal reimbursements — money for food, staff, new equipment and other upgrades. Additionally, hundreds of millions of dollars are available for kitchen infrastructure and for schools cooking from scratch, buying from California farmers.
In California’s rural Modoc Unified School District, near the Oregon border, lunch menus reflect what the state is trying to change: a rotation of hot dogs, chicken nuggets, pizza, burgers. There are vegetables, as required by federal guidelines, but mostly not fresh. “I try not to eat canned vegetables more than twice a week,” said Jessica Boal, director of nutrition for the 840-student district.
The district’s five schools lack functioning kitchens, so their staff spends half the day unpacking shipments of processed, prepackaged foods. But Boal is excited about changes on the horizon. The district recently applied for government grants to build new kitchens in each school and bring in more produce.
Mount Diablo High School still serves hot dogs and hamburgers, but the meat comes from grass-fed animals.
“I haven’t served chicken nuggets here in two years. And the kids don’t miss it,” said Dominic Machi, who has redesigned meals for the district since becoming nutrition director five years ago.
Students at the school, 96 percent of whom are from a racial or ethnic minority group, say paying attention to quality food sends a message of respect.
The school is in a neighborhood with fast food malls. But within its walls, “this food makes me feel more important. It feels good not to eat junk,” said Kahlanii Cravanas, 16.
Anahi Nava Flores, 17, said the meals instilled a sense of self-worth. “When you go to an upscale restaurant, you go home feeling good. That’s what this food does.”
Cheyanne Mumphrey contributed coverage from Scottsdale, Arizona.