Healthier, tastier, school food has come a long way

Barbara Hootman

Every morning, Karen Ellis wakes knowing she will cook for more than 650 students. So a few extra guests at Thanksgiving was no cause for alarm.

In her first year heading the cafeteria at Black Mountain Primary School, Ellis prepared a Thanksgiving spread for 1,200 people, earning high marks for the meal.

Today’s school cafeteria staff is nutritionally savvy and dedicated to preparing nutritional, tasty meals. No longer is cafeteria fare what it was when the primary school’s parents pushed their way through lunch lines past mushy meats and overcooked vegetables.

“Forty additional guests were added the morning of Thanksgiving lunch,” Ellis said. “We worked hard for two days prior to the lunch to get everything ready. (That) included cooking 94 turkeys and hand-slicing them. Everything was prepared fresh, and nothing was frozen.

“We prepared the turkey, gravy and dressing separately. There was little food wasted because we have a three-day window of time to use leftovers. And we used them.”

Ellis was a reference librarian looking for a job that gave her more time at home with her children when she applied for the job. She loves to cook. That’s a good thing.

She prepares food for some 434 students at Black Mountain Primary School and for 210 students at Black Mountain Elementary. She prepares breakfast - available free of charge - for about 350 students. After breakfast is over and students are in the classrooms, she’s ready by 10:45 a.m. to start serving lunch. Her day starts at 5:45 a.m. when she turns the ovens on and starts breakfast. Her staff starts arriving about 7 a.m.

Buncombe County Schools has a three-week rotating menu of meals that allows students to know what will be served each day of the week.

“The students are allowed to choose what they want to eat before they arrive in the cafeteria,” Ellis said. “The teachers notify the cafeteria what the students have selected. Each teacher has a copy of the menu in the classroom. If we are having a new food, we spend time prior to introducing it, letting the students sample it.

“We are an ‘offer-versus-serve’ school, which means the students select what they want to eat. It cuts down on a lot of food waste. They have to have one fruit, one vegetable and a meat. We have juices and water available at all meals. They can have milk but aren’t required to have it. Every child from the first one in the line to the end of the line gets the same food choices.”

Student lunches cost $2.25 (staff members pay $3.85). Lunch is free for students whose families can’t afford it. The cafeteria kitchen accommodates several children with food sensitivities and allergies.

“If a child is allergic to milk - and that is one of the hardest ones to accommodate because milk is used in so many things - we make sure no milk products are used in food for that student,” Ellis said. “Everyone on staff knows what a student is allergic to. Food for special diets is cooked separately and not even stored with other foods.”

Ellis’ yeast rolls have earned a five-star recommendation from staff and students.

“I always have to have an extra roll because they are delicious,” Jessica Atkins, a teacher assistant, said.

“I really don’t do anything any different than anyone else preparing (the rolls) in our school system,” Ellis said. “We all use the same recipe. But they are popular. I want the students to enjoy their food, and I appreciate parents allowing us to feed their children.”

Meatloaf, yeast rolls, patty melts and country-style steak are all made from scratch, Ellis said.

“We use school recipes, but we make them here in our kitchen,” she said.

Tater Tots and French fries are gradually being replaced by fresh produce at the schools. Fresh salads are available. Foods such as chicken patties are now baked, not fried, and have whole-grain breading. Warmed-up processed foods are being replaced with foods prepared from scratch.

In 2012, federal guidelines called for fruits and vegetables with every meal and set calorie minimums and maximums. New standards that came out in 2014 that further reduced sodium in school lunches and that require all grains on the menu, including breading on meat products, be rich in whole grains.

Nancy Hunt has worked with the kitchen staff at Black Mountain Primary School for two years. She also worked in the Owen High School cafeteria before she moved to Black Mountain Primary.

“I think high school students are pickier about food than the primary and elementary students,” she said. “I think you have a chance to get students to at least try new foods when they are younger. That isn’t true on the high school level. I also think moving toward healthier foods is good for everyone.”

Ellis said her six-member kitchen staff works seamlessly.

“You don’t know where one of us starts or ends,” she said. “If one of us is finished with a job, we help others. No one could ask for a better team to work with than my kitchen staff.”