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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on September 7th, 2010, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 11, Issue 26 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 11, Issue 26

Cafeteria boot camp shapes up workers and menus

The Santa Maria-Bonita School district aims to fight junk food with healthy alternatives


When students went to the cafeteria for lunchtime in the old days, they pretty much looked forward to it only because it wasn’t class.

The Santa Maria Bonita School District recently revamped its menu through intensive boot camps for its food service cooks, so it’s all about the food now.

About 30 lunch ladies and gents marched to a “culinary boot camp” in early August, where they learned to unlearn their prior practices and, instead, focus on nutritional meals that will leave school children full and content.

The boot camp took place Aug. 2 through 6—a Monday through Friday. Half of the group worked in the kitchen and the other half sat in a classroom setting early in the day; after lunch, they switched places. The group learned knife skills, safety precautions, time management, menu planning, and serving to either kids or adults.

“It was very intense,” said Liz Powell, food service supervisor for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District. “The first couple of days, their minds are overwhelmed, but by the end of the week, they ask: ‘Are we going to do this again?’ Because they’re really enjoying it.”

This isn’t the first boot camp to whip potato-slingers into shape. A few years ago, three cafeteria managers attended a similar event, and in January of last year, all of the cafeteria managers—as well as Liz Powell and Jeanie Steller, who’s also a supervisor with the Santa Maria-Bonita School District—attended a camp. The next month, they gathered and decided to start making the district’s menu more health-oriented.

“We started with the salad bar and started ordering local produce and … using local farmers,” Powell said. “About 80 percent of our produce is grown locally.”

Although there have been some changes in the menu (chocolate milk has been dropped from the line-up except on Thursdays), some food has simply been modified to preserve consistency and food familiarity for the children. The grilled cheese sandwich, for example, is still a grilled-cheese sandwich, but it’s no longer served on white bread. Instead, it comes on whole-wheat. White rice also didn’t survive the cutting board; brown rice has replaced it.

Adding and incorporating vegetables into the meals offered is the center of the plan, though many kids are oblivious to the presence of their longtime green nemesis.

“If I share about this and the kids read it, they may not want to eat it,” Powell jokingly said. “For the spaghetti sauce, we sauté onions, celery, garlic, zucchini, and carrots and add the tomato sauce, blend it up, and then add the meat. One little boy at Oakley said that he thought he was at the Olive Garden.”

The district is going against the grain by cooking foods from scratch instead of buying processed sauces.

Their macaroni and cheese is also a healthy variation of the usual fatty child favorite. Rather than soaking the pasta in cheese, cafeteria employees puree white sauce and butternut squash, mix in a little cheese, and pour it onto whole grain pasta. Consequently, the kids are eating a low-fat variation of a typical favorite.

Of course, the students still get their Domino’s pizza, but even the chain is reworking its food for the sake of the kids. Instead of a heavily cheesy pizza, Domino’s is working on providing the district with lighter cheese, more sauce, and whole grain dough.

With all of the menu updates and tweaked recipes, the district’s cafeterias are sounding much more like restaurants than places where kids gather to hurl their food at each other. The district has posted an analysis of its breakfast and lunch menus so parents can look at the nutritional value of the food their kids are eating.

“The fact of going to school and learning math, reading, arithmetic—they’re learning in the cafeteria because we are introducing new things to them,” Powell said. “During Christmas time, we had persimmons, and the little kids asked the principal when they were going to have them again, and the principal said, ‘I don’t even know what that is.’ So he came in and got one.”

Contact contributor Henry Houston through the executive editor at rmiller

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