School Food Chefs Learn to Plot Healthier Menus With a New Fellowship

With scratch cooking in schools still hard to achieve, the program is training school lunch leaders to leave the heat-and-serve model behind.

By Anne Marshall-Chalmers

Zena Martinez, a food-program specialist with the Glendale Union High School District in Glendale, Arizona, calls the spicy chicken patty she serves for lunch the “bane of her existence.” The students love it, and, yes, it meets U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutritional standards, but she is tired of serving a heavily processed sandwich that comes frozen and in bulk quantities.

Martinez is so tired of serving this kind of processed meal, in fact, that a few years ago she went searching for information about what her district used to serve kids, hoping that she’d find old recipes for scratch-cooked meals tucked away somewhere. She flipped through heavy binders full of menus dating back to 2010 and found only disappointment: Hamburgers, pizza, chicken patties, the very meals she was rotating through every week had been staples for years, probably decades.

“You don’t see passion in these menus,” says Martinez. “You see the status quo.”

Since then, Martinez, who oversees school food in nine high schools, began offering at least one meal every week that required more than reheating. Entrees like baked ziti and a chicken and rice bowl began popping up as lunch specials. Now, at least 10 percent of her menu involves what those in school food call “speed scratch” cooking, meaning she uses fully cooked ingredients such as chicken breasts and tomatoes, to produce a dish that’s less processed than frozen patties on a bun. A diet heavy in processed food is linked to less physical fitness in kids as well as a wide range of health problems including diabetes and cardiovascular disease in adults.

Martinez wants to boost her speed scratch cooking to 40 percent by next year, and she dreams of cooking only meals with raw, fresh ingredients two years after that.

“I believe that it’s fully achievable,” she says.

Her determination is exactly what the Chef Ann Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting scratch-cooking in schools, was looking for when it created the Healthy School Food Pathways Fellowship, a year-long program that aims to create a new generation of school food leaders eager to abandon the heat-and-serve model. Martinez was among the 24 inaugural fellows selected out of about 60 applicants from districts around the country.

To read the entire article, visit Civil Eats. 

(Photos courtesy of the Chef Ann Foundation)