Editor’s note: In 2011, Casey Middle School student journalists agreed to take a closer look at school lunch and what would increase the number of students who eat the hot lunches. As part of that exploration, Sean and Jean met with Chef Ann Cooper, and they had this conversation:
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SEAN & JEAN: So, me and Jean and our radio group, we were for the past two months or so, we’ve been researching and discussing school lunches, and some ways that we can get our numbers up on school lunches. We know here at Casey, we have a big percentage of epople who are participating in the school lunch.
CHEF ANN: On any given day, there’s more than 40% of the kids eat. So we on average are doing 240 meals a day here. That’s 20% up from last year, and you have 550 kids. So between 40 % and 50% of the kids eat lunch here every day. Which is actually pretty good.
SEAN & JEAN: We were wondering if we could get the school lunch numbers up even higher.
CHEF ANN: That’d be great.
SEAN & JEAN: And improving it. So one of the ideas we had was for vendors to participate in our school lunches.
CHEF ANN: I don’t understand what that means.
SEAN & JEAN: This means places like China Gourmet or something participating or Jamba Juice.
CHEF ANN: So one of the things you should probably do in your research is to find out what the guidelines are and also how much money we have.
SEAN & JEAN: The guidelines are specific about what we can serve. You have to be sure that the ideas you have fit the guidelines and they fit our price.
CHEF ANN: Do you guys know how much money we’re allocated to spend on the food.
SEAN & JEAN: I think we talked about it awhile ago, but I forget.
CHEF ANN: As a middle school student, you guys pay $3.00 for the kids who could pay, but there’s over 30%, over a third of all the kids here are free and reduced lunch kids and that means the government gives us $2.77 but of that, we get to spend $1.15 on food. So when you think about what you mgiht be able to bring in, you need to think that there’s $1.15, that’s all that we have.
SEAN & JEAN: For each kid?
CHEF ANN: Yep. And we have to follow all the Federal Guidelines. Now the federal guidelines say we have to have five items that we offer every day. Protein, fresh fruit, fresh vegetable, whole grain and milk, and those five things have to be offered at every meal. All for a dollar fifteen. Now we have offers versus served, so you don’t have to take all of those items. And we’ve chosen in the school district to have salad bars in every school, so that takes up some of the money. So you would have to have, if you thought about another vendor, for instance, they would have to be able to supply all those five items in a meal for $1.15. I don’t know if you’ve looked into any other companies that might be able to supply food, and for us, the district has guidelines. There’s no high fructose corn syrup, no transfats, no colors, no dyes, no chemicals. I don’t know if you know, but all of our bone-in chicken is organic. All the the hamburgers you guys eat are organic. The bread is organic, the milk is organic. So not all of those vendors provide local food as much or as much that’s organic.
SEAN & JEAN: We saw on the internet that St. Vrain School District, they had like a fresh fruit smoothie.
CHEF ANN: So I’m not sure if their regulations are different than ours. They could have different regulations within that district, or they may be selling a smoothie “a la carte.” Our district has chosen not to have ala carte. The Colorado Department of Education guidelines are very specific around beverages. Beverages can be up to 10 ounces in middle school and have up to 66 calories per 8 ounces, so for 10 ounces, there’d be like 75 calories. And our district has a policy that you can’t have any non-nutrient sweeteners. So St. Vrain might sell them ala carte. It couldn’t be part of the lunch.
SEAN & JEAN: We were looking at their lunch menus . . .
CHEF ANN: We could look at it. As far as their regular entrees, I know that our food is better quality. Now whether it fits everyone’s tastes or not? But from the goals of trying to be organic and trying to be natural and trying to be all those things, I think we probably have better food. As far as having milkshakes or smoothies or something, I can look to see what they’re doing.
SEAN: We don’t usually eat the hot lunch, but we tried one day the . . .
JEAN: No you didn’t! I tried the Cheesy Pasta. Me, Jessie and Kate, people who used to be in journalist, we tried it, and we didn’t really like it that much cause there was too much sauce and we couldn’t really see the noodles at all.
CHEF ANN: So it was too saucy. Do you think it was too cheesy? We’ve been playing with the amount of cheese that’s in it. Part of our challenge is the three ounces of protein we’re supposed to provide to middle school students. We have to get the cheese there, which is kind of weird, right, because people may not want more cheese. So we struggle with that. One of the things I would be more than happy to do with you guys is, if you wanted to come to a tasting, or get some kids together to taste a bunch of stuff, and tell us how it could be better or different, we do tastings all the time, all over the district, and some of the recpies we have now were from tastings we did here last year. But I’d be happy, if you guys have some friends who want to come together to do a tasting of some of our things, that would be helpful.
I balance five things. I balance what the kids will eat, what the parents want them to eat, what we can afford at a dollar fifteeen, what we can actually produce in our kitchens, and the federal guidelines. So I have five groups of people that are telling us what to do, so that’s a big blaance, so sometimes, as you guys probably know, what the kids want to eat isn’t what the parents want them to eat, but if the food doesn’t match the guidelines . . .
In any given day we do between 7,000 and 9,000 lunches a day. We do about 10,000 meals a day including breakfast. Here we do about 240 or 250 meals a day. On pizza we do 300. So we try to balance what do the kids say, what do the guidelines say, what do to the parents say. The district has a wellness policy. So there’s a lot of things to try and figure out when we’re trying to figure out how we can feed kids.
And there’s another part fo this I thik. You guys are really lucky. You can bring your lunches from home. I don’t know if you guys know this, but in our school district, 25% of the kids live at or below 180% of the poverty line. That means a family of four, they would be living on less than $30,000 a year. So, there’s more than 5,000 kids in those families, and they don’t have the choice to bring their lunch from home. They don’t have the money. These are hungry kids living at the poverty line. It may be that to be able to make sure these kids get nourishment.
SEAN & JEAN: It needs to be cheaper.
CHEF ANN: Well, it has to be inexpensive because that’s all the money we have. But for everybody, it has to be these full, complete meals that may not be as fun as you’d like, but are very healthy and have enough calories and enough protein and whole grains and fresh vegetables and fresh fruit, and so when we think about this, there’s 29,000 students in the district, and among middle schools, which is about a third of those kids, on any given day we feed about 30% or 40%.
SEAN & JEAN: Jean tried the pasta and it had a little much too sacue for her likeing and cheese for her liking. We could have a bar and maybe, I don’t know, a lunch lady just stand there and have a spoon with the right amount of food that you need for the USDA guideline and then put the cheese that you want on there and then the sauce you want.
CHEF ANN: There are a couple of challenges to doing it. YOur lunch periods are very short, so let’s just say we have 250 kids eating, and 20 – 30% of them want to go through a self-service bar, and we only have 20 mintues or a little bit longer for lunch, so that would be a little bit of a challenge. And the other challenge is the $1.15. When we put together a meal, we know how much the sauce costs and the pasta costs. We know how much everything costs to the penny. And the salad bar costs eighteen to twenty two cents a portion. Once you go to self-service pastas or potato bars, or those other things, it’s really challenge to stay within the dollar fifteen because people can kind of take what they want.
So let’s say you only want cheese pasta. You don’t want any tomato sauce on it or pasta with cheese. It wouldn’t fit the guidelines, and second of all, the amount of cheese . . . cheese costs 15 cents an ounce, so it doesn’t take much cheese to all of a sudden take the cost of things up. But I hear you want more choice. One of the reasons we don’t do pasta and sauce and cheese seperately even on the line is because it doesn’t make a complete meal. We need the center of the plate entree to at least be part of a complete meal, so there’s only two other items that somebody needs before it’s a reimbursable meal by the USDA. But we could think about things like that.
The thing that would be great, if you guys wanted to really help is to get some kids together that would sit down and do a tasting, like, okay, let’s taste the pasta. Oh, it has too much sauce? How much can we take out. Now doesn’t eveyone think there’s too much sauce, or not enough? Or the spiciness. Some people think the chicken tacos are too spicy and some kids think they’re not spicy enough. How can we get them more spicy? So how do we get a group of kids together to talk about that, and then that would be the middle ground. Can you have some spicy sauce on the side so it’s not too much for tohe other kids. Or can we take some of the sauce out and still meet the guidelines, and then have some other kids say whether it tastes saucy enough. We’d be happy to do anything like that that you guys want.
SEAN & JEAN: The bars was an idea of ours, and the sauce that you just brought up is a good idea, to maybe have sauce on the side and you get to pick how much you want, but is there a USDA guideline for that?
CHEF ANN: Yes there is. We have to have so much sauce, so much cheese, so much pasta, to make sure we’re serving at least one grain portion and at least a protein portion. But we could look at that.
SEAN & JEAN: My opinion like it’s not really changing.
CHEF ANN: So how many school lunches have you eaten?
SEAN & JEAN: I used to eat them every day in 2nd and 3rd grade.
CHEF ANN: Have you eaten the new foods since we’ve been making it here the last year or two.
SEAN & JEAN: Not on a regular basis.
CHEF ANN: We have a six-week cycle. In six weeks, which is basically 30 days, we have a rotating menu, so you don’t see the same menu item. The main menu item doesn’t repeat in 30 days, so for you to actually have tried the food to any extent, you would have to have eaten it for 30 days to see what it is. I would love for you to taste some of the food and say, you know what, I would like the nachos If. . . . Just in general, is nachos something you eat?
SEAN & JEAN: Yeah.
CHEF ANN: We serve nachos here a couple of times a month, and you could taste the nachos and say gee, I would eat the nachos IF . . . we handroll all our burritos, both chicken and beef, so you could say, I actually like burritos, but I don’t like these because . . . so what I need is specific feedback so we can look at what it is we serve. And we change our stuff all the time. We’ve significantly changed the menu since I came three years ago.
Before I came, the items being served here were corn dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches that were frozen and came in plastic, chicken nuggets, something called a pizza pocket that was frozen in plastic, bread with some goop on top. Nothing was made in house. Nothing at all. Every single thing before four years ago was made by a big company, had chemicals and dyes and all that stuff in it, and it was shipped in frozen. Everything was bought frozen, from some big company somewhere else. Nobody made any food, and it was just heated and served to you guys.
From them, we have the food now where every single bit of it is made from scratch. We have in the district, eight chefs, and the chefs that we have cooking for you guys came from places that you might even think are kind of cool, like Rock Bottom, the executive from Pearl Street Whole Foods, Executive Chef from the Cheesecake factory, a sous chef from Whole Foods. Those are the people cooking the food. All these people really really care and want to cook good food. And are trying to cook good food. The question is whether that’s translating into stuff that would make you guys happy. And if it’s not, how do we change it through your input to make it into something you guys might want to eat.
And you guys don’t eat it, you don’t have to eat. You have the luxury of bringing your food from home. So you can choose to do that. But how do we take the majority of the students in this school. Of the 550 students, we’re feeding about 240 a day. So if the goal is to feed 50 more students, how do we make it so that 50 more students would think it’s kind of cool and want to eat it. That’s our challenge. There’s so many kids with so many different likes.
SEAN & JEAN: Has the USDA guidelines changed since the three years you’ve been here.
CHEF ANN: THey have. We go beyond the guidelines, but yes. We’ve got a range of about 35% fat, 10% saturated fat, 35% sugar by weight, the sodium guideline has changed a lot. Our sodium is pretty low because that’s such a big challenge with kids these days, and ids with heart disease and stuff. And also there’s the district guidelines. No high fructose corn syrup, no transfats no colors no dyes. But we actually cook everything. So every single thing that comes out of that kitchen, whether it’s the pizza we make ourselves or the burritoes that we roll or the pasta that we cook or the pasta sauce we make.
We can change them. So if the majority of the students or your friends say, Geez, pasta has too much sauce, the burritos are too spicy or not spicy enough. The nachos should have a different taste. Those are the things we can change, and I’m really excited. All the chefs would be really excited to change those things. But we do kind of live in this little box around the finances and the USDA and waht’s capable. In our kitchen here, producing the fod, they’re making 2800 meals a day here, sometimes as many as 3,000. There’s a sous chef who was an executive chef with the cheesecake factory. He has two cooks. One was a chef at Whole Foods, and thery’re so buys we just hired another prep cook from here, so you’ve got these people who are working eight nine hours a day doing nothing but cooking this food from scratch every day. So they really, really care. Everyone just so cares about what you guys think and about how the food is, and about serving healthy food, that everyone, and certainly myself, but everyone here would really like it to be stuff that the majority of kids would eat, and so we’re really happy for input, and that’s why a survey, as long as it comes out with some very specific quantifiable results would be really helpful for us, too.
But I think what we would do to have it be very beneficial, is we would set up a tasting with a number of products that have nothing to do with the lunch. So you still eat whatever you want, and just come in and sit and actually taste a number of items with the chefs and be able to tell the chefs what you think of the items and how they could be different. It wouldn’t just be with me. We would have a panel of chefs to talk about hte food and see what specific things could change.
A setup tasting is a little more helpful for us, becuase you can be sitting and have a dialogue with the chefs instead of just reading a piece of paper because you know there’s no question and answer. It’s like, I didn’t like it, it had too much sauce, or okay, we redid it and now taste it again, and there’s that give and take that’s really helpful when you can sit, and we’ve done that at other schools, where we’ve sat with students and done a sort of formal tasting with some items and just to be able to have that give and take, because yes, having a piece of paper tell you something is helpful, but the give and take around it I think is much more engaging and helpful one on one for our chefs who are making the food.
SEAN & JEAN: I noticed that at other restaurants like, Chipotle, I guess, there’s like refrigerators that block off the product, like the productivity kitchen, and I mean, it just is an appeal factor.
CHEF ANN: So you don’t like seeing the kitchen.
SEAN & JEAN: Not really.
CHEF ANN: Have you guys eaten at Pizza Locality.
SEAN & JEAN: Yeah. No I haven’t, but my friends have.
CHEF ANN: It’s interesting, you know, you go to restaurants downtown or you go to Salt or you go to the Kitchen, the tables that everybody wants at Salt are the ones right around where you can see the kitchen.
I was a restaurant chef before school food and cooked all over this country and in some other countries and cruise ships. What we’ve seen is people really wanting to see the kitchen, so when this place was built, it was built so there was that transparancy so everyone can see. If you walk in the kitchen, you’ll see it’s really clean and stuff like that. But that could be changed, but there is something.
SEAN & JEAN: Yeah, like that feel when you’re right near. I’ve sat right near the kitchen at Salt and I like that but not behind the doors
Like especially if you don’t really like what you see.
CHEF ANN: Yeah.
SEAN & JEAN: Like we went into the kitchen at here, when they were making like oil noodles or something, and they have like oil and like onions and stuff, but they were just making like huge barrels of all this oily stuff, and it just wasn’t very appealing.
SEAN & JEAN: But like, I love seeing them just put stuff in flames. But not the behind the scenes stuff.
FRIEND: One thing that you guys could do is different drinks because I think a lot of the kids, they’ve had Izzies like a hundred times.
CHEF ANN: It’s the only drink that the USDA will allow us to serve. It’s that or juice. So the guidlines say we can serve only 100% juice in schools, and the only way we got Izzy is because the only ingredient is water besides juice. We had to get a Colorado Department of Variance to serve Izzy. So, Sorry.
This is all big batches of sauce. They’re starting to put together that cheesy pasta. Is that what you guys hate, is just seeing it in that quantities, just thinking about it that way?
SEAN & JEAN: Yeah.
SEAN & JEAN: Like all the cheese. I don’t like cheese that much.
SEAN & JEAN: I love cheese.
CHEF ANN: So making cheesy pasta isn’t something you like.
SEAN & JEAN: She cooks her own pasta to bring it to school
SEAN & JEAN: She made pasta herself in the morning that day.
CHEF ANN: These guys start between 6 and 7 in the morning so they’re kind of in between stuff right now.
SEAN & JEAN: How long are they here?
CHEF ANN: Eight or nine hours a day.
SEAN & JEAN: Do you guys make a proffit and does it go to them?
CHEF ANN: We don’t make a profit. There’s so little money all we try to do is spend the money we bring in, break even and serve the best food we can with the money we have.
Allright, thanks you guys.