Category Archives: School Lunch

Potatoes Saved My Life


My name is Cynthia and I eat  potatoes.  In fact, I might not be thriving today were it not for this humble inexpensive food.  I was very likely one of the top 100 pickiest eaters as a child.  True.  Let’s swap stories and see.   Continue reading

Hands-on Enthusiasm at School Food Service Workshops

“I feel inspired and inspiring” Marta wrote in an email post-teaching one of the first two  Discover.Cook. Nourish. workshops for school food service workers (part of the national CPPW grant).  Eight workshops down and a few dozen more to go, we’re getting a big thumbs up from the participants.

The school food service workers in attendance fill out evaluations after the 8-hour day rating various criteria on a 1 (low) to 5 (highest) scale.  There are 10 topics to score such as effectiveness of power points, thoroughness of presentation, relevance to self and work, teacher’s ability to answer questions and so on for a maximum of 50 points.  “Session overall” and “would you recommend this workshop to others” is currently getting averaging 4.8 out of 5.  The overall average, combining scores for all 10 topics is 46.8 out of 50.  Everyone working on this project is jazzed about the kudos we’re receiving.

What aspect do participants like best?  Hands down, the most frequent praise on the evaluations is for the hands-on cooking sections of the workshop.  Auburn and King County food service workers simmer quinoa, spice up black beans, take chicken for a swim in yogurt, curry up chickpeas, get down with braised greens and slice and dice fresh fruits, vegetables and herbs to adorn each dish.  Their “Build a Bowl”  lunches evoke yummy yummy yummy I got love in my tummy.

The workshops represent steps toward bettering the cash-strapped school lunch program.  How to implement what participants are learning will more time, more push.  Luckily the second favorite aspect of the workshops, as reported by participants on the evaluations, is “sharing ideas”.  The day ends with a game called “Cauldron of Insight” which stimulates this type of conversation.  Groundbreaking ideas are being offered by Alice Waters, Ann Cooper and Jamie Oliver but the way to change may also emerge from the hearts and minds of the people who work in the school lunch program Monday through Friday.  I can’t wait to see what bubbles up.

Answers to the evaluation question: Which part of the training did you find most useful?

  • Learning to cook with ingredients I’ve never used.
  • Loved being able to try food that I wanted to try but did not know how to prepare.
  • All because it will be helpful in my job and my personal life
  • I enjoyed every part of the training class.  I can’t wait to implement certain ideas at school and in my home.

Yes AND let’s go to Mars

The inaugural workshop of Discover.  Cook.  Nourish. the how and why of whole foods cooking for school food service workers, created by Cookus Interruptus (that’s us!),  takes place this Saturday, March 5th .  This will be the first of many workshops as the  grant executors hope to schedule at least 35 this year.  The workshop instructors are trained, the informative, colorful power point slide shows are loaded on laptops and jumpdrives, the 100-page+  accompanying workbook full of practical information, research and recipes  has been printed a put into binders – we are ready, set, go.

Participants at the workshop will begin the morning by playing an improvisational theater game called Yes And.  The game was invented to help improvisational theater actors accept offers on stage.  For example, if a scene begins and actor #1 says ”Hey honey, do you have everything packed for our trip” – there is a clear offer.  The offer being that the two actors are related in some way, the activity is packing, and the future promises a trip of some sort.  Let’s say that actor #2 enters this scene and says, “I don’t want to take a trip. I have work to do.”  Instantly the scene falls flat.  Forward motion stops.  Whereas if the actor had responded by saying, “Yes and I am so excited that we are part of the first ever Vacation to Mars tour.” – well, now you have a scene.  Wonderful possibilities exist. The life of the scene moves forward.

This game is apropos for any encounter where people are meeting to create solutions or bring forth new plans.  Consider how often we routinely say, “That won’t work.” to a new idea.  When we do, the flow stops.  The person offering the new idea is shut down.

Our hope is that playing the Yes And game will help the  Discover. Cook. Nourish participants open to possibility.  The game encourages conscious thinking about the pat responses  “that won’t work, because”, or “yes, but”, or  flat out ‘no” when offered a new idea.  By setting this tone for the workshops, we hope to invoke receptivity for a whole new look to their own dinner plate.  And eventually, with support, there could be a whole new look to what’s being served in the school cafeteria.

Try an experiment.  Say “Yes, and…”, or “Of course”, to seemingly impossible ideas offered by a friend, spouse or a co-worker, even if you don’t believe them.  Try it!  Amidst the creative “non-sense” that emerges, you may discover a simple, very do-able solution that’s been lurking there all along. They begin to appear when we retire the word “no” from habitual use.
(from Cynthia)

About the CPPW Grant:

In spring 2010, Public Health – Seattle & King County was awarded two highly-competitive federal stimulus grants to address the leading causes of death in our region as part of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention’s Communities Putting Prevention to Work (CPPW). CPPW funds policy, systems and environmental changes that support residents in making healthier choices to reduce obesity and tobacco use; the main contributors to premature illness, death, and health care costs locally and nationally. The grant does not fund direct service, but instead supports projects like the creation of healthier food environments and spaces to be physically active.

Auburn School District Child Nutrition Services Department is coordinating the development of the Food Service Certificate Program -  Discover.  Cook.  Nourish. created by Cookus Interruptus.   Food service staff (150) in King County will gain skills and learn new recipes related to whole foods preparation.

Salt Wars

The workshop for school food service workers (discover.cook.nourish; part of the CPPW grant) has an accompanying  workbook with about 33 recipes in it.  A group of volunteer master’s in nutrition students from Bastyr University calculated a nutritional profile for each recipe as well as a retail cost per serving.  Seemed like good information to add.  But honestly, I was nervous about the sodium content for a couple of the recipes – like Vegetable and Chicken Teriyaki.

salt you will eat no more

Salt no more you will eat!

The fear comes from the battles being fought against salt (sodium chloride) in food.  The new USDA food guidelines recommend that children and people over 50 should consume 1500 mg or less daily.  Why?  Because 70% of the American population is at risk for high blood pressure and hypertension is correlated with high salt intake.  Americans currently eat about 3,400 mg of sodium daily.  It is important to note that 70- 80% of that  sodium intake comes from packaged food and restaurant food.

This guideline puts a real crimp in the typical school lunch which relies heavily on processed foods to keep costs low (see “Please Don’t Condition my Dough“).  No picnic for the makers of packaged food either.  Salt is a low cost way to create taste and texture when your base ingredients have none.  If food manufacturers had to replace salt (lower the sodium content) they would have to resort to more expensive ingredients and lose profits.  Higher food costs are not an option for school lunch programs either, who are not generating profits and operate within a very tight budget.

But wait a minute.  Hold the no-salt phone. Apparently hypertension has been increasing for years without any change in sodium intake.  No kidding.  According to a report in Food Navigator, “rising obesity rates may be a more important factor for hypertension than rising sodium consumption” claim the authors of a new study that notes US sodium intake has remained relatively constant over the past 50 years.  Then why is the USDA recommending these extremely low amounts of sodium?  I don’t know. Is a symptom being addressed rather than the cause (people consuming too much sodium-laden junk food because the ingredients come from subsidized crops so the food is cheap; weight gain from eating these foods cascading into other health problems such as hypertension and diabetes)???  I have so many questions.

Marion Nestle, PhD,  feels that the whole salt thing is a consumer choice issue.  If you want to keep your sodium intakes lower (and your weight reasonable) don’t buy Cheetos and Coke.  In her thread of posts on salt Marion also quotes Judith Shulevitz’s piece in The New Republic, “Is salt the new crack?”  Ms. Shulevitz writes:
“We need to stop ingesting all these substances in ludicrous amounts…We need to be taught not just what’s in processed food, but how historically anomalous its manufacture and our consumption of it are. We need to understand the mechanisms that addict us to it. We need to relearn how to prepare real meals, and we need to start rethinking the social dynamics of that chore (it can’t just be up to wives and mothers anymore).”

Yup.  Let’s cook.  Less than 5% of our sodium intake comes from salt added to foods prepared from scratch at home. That’s why half of the workshop for school service workers is hands-on cooking.  That’s one of the many reasons for launching Cookus Interruptus.

Do you worry about salt intake? And if you do, what do you do about keeping sodium intake low?  What do you think about the guideline to keep school lunch food under 1500 mg?  Will that help?

(from Cynthia)

School Lunch Make-Over: Starting with who?

I spoke with someone in the local media this week about the “Communities Putting Prevention to Work” (CPPW) grant workshops: Discover. Cook. Nourish. that I am proud to be working on.  The reporter asked about the focus of the workshops and I explained that we were attempting to affect the beliefs of the individual school food service worker as a first step.  The workshop materials clearly outlines the need for changing how we eat and then offers ample lessons and resources on “how to”.  We cover popular food terminology, whole grain and bean cookery, how to balance meals, how to shop for the best quality and give hands –on cooking lessons using dozens of recipes.  By getting these individuals jazzed about better health via good food, they may develop a passion for feeding themselves and their family better.

The reporter, playing devil’s advocate, wondered how these workshops were going to help.  If grant money is awarded to teach school food service workers about serving better food, parents want to see better food on their child’s lunch tray.  PDQ!  Why waste precious grant money on changing the school food service worker’s dinner plate?

I stood my ground.  Because post workshop, if a food service manager wants to bring in more food from local vendors, the workers who took the workshops will be in the “heck yea” camp.  Sign up the their school for the child_cafeteriafarm-to-school program?  The answer is more likely to be YES and how can I help.  If serving more whole grains in the menu rotation becomes part of the “more fiber” rule from the government, these foods won’t be unfamiliar. In fact, the folks who have taken the workshop will know how to make a variety of whole grains taste fantastic.  Maybe they’ll be psyched enough to host an information session for the parents at their school?  Or a cooking class?

Starting with the individual is exactly where change begins.  Each parent, each child, each school food service worker has to desire similar changes if school lunch food is going to improve.  I threw the question back to her.  If we don’t shift the consciousness of the school food service worker, then who would you start with?  Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution is emotionally charged, confrontational and nationally televised.  His sweeping school lunch makeover is one approach, lobbying for better school lunch policies in D.C. is another.  Two Angry Moms made a movie to raise consciousness and evoke change. I feel that the problem has to be confronted from every point of entry.  Dr. Susan Rubin of Better School Food has a “to do” list for parents and school food service directors to follow.  What’s your take on the issue.  Where does changing the way we feed children begin for you?

Cookus Interruptus

A Triscuit, a Task Ahead

The work for the CPPW (Communities Putting Prevention to Work) grant project is humming along.  My colleague, Carol White, and I have five power points and 2/3 of the workbook completed for the ensuing spring and summer workshops (hooray!) titled “Discover. Cook. Nourish: the why and how of whole foods cooking for school food service staff”

A challenge arose in portraying the USDA guidelines in the power point on balanced meals – the crazy quilt pyramid with the android running up the side of it?   The one where figuring out which colored stripe means what takes some wild guessing, a magnifying glass or both.  We look up close and personal at this chart during my class at Bastyr.  The two Triscuits prominently displayed beneath the orange stripe and the quart of milk, pint of milk, and (in case you didn’t get it) glass of milk, dancing within the blue stripe are noteworthy.   If you believe these were artistic choices, pull your head out of the Nabisco box.

In the slide for the workshops I chose the soft word “compromised” in describing the pyramid.    Not polite to admonish rules for which there are no alternatives.  Still, it’s good to add the reminder that the regulations put forth by the USDA are loaded with political punch and financial headlocks.

This morning I read Marion Nestle’s food politics blog where she outlined her 2011 predictions.  Apparently a new pictorial USDA food guideline is ready for launch.  Ms. Nestle says, “The 2005 pyramid’s rainbow stripes proved impossible to teach and useless to anyone without a computer. I’ve heard a rumor that I will love the new design. I’m skeptical. ”

Amen.  Impossible to teach are the right words.  How one would construct a balanced meal by staring at the stripes with the product menagerie spilling out of the bottom is beyond me.  Too many interest groups spoiled the broth?

(from Cynthia)

School Lunch Reflects Cultural Values

Cookus Interruptus has begun work on the CPPW (Communities Putting Prevention to Work) grant creating workshops to train school food service workers on the wonders of whole foods cooking.  Margaret Dam RD, Child Nutrition Coordinator for Auburn School District is overseeing the grant.  Carol White, MS, RD is busy writing sections of the workbook needed for the project and we have lined up a stellar group of teachers to give the workshops.

As I work on this project, I am always mindful of how handcuffed the system is by lack of funds.  In King County the budget for school lunch is about $2.75 per child per lunch.  About 50% of that goes to labor leaving only around $1.37 for food.  But lack of funding doesn’t excuse everything.

The French have a different take on school lunch: ” The variety on the menus is astonishing: no single meal is repeated over the 32 school days in the period, and every meal includes an hors d’oeuvre, salad, main course, cheese plate and dessert.”  Mary Brighton is a US mom living in Paris who writes the blog brightonyourhealth.  She’s been comparing French school lunches to a fare served at a school in New Jersey for a number of days.  Here’s a sample from Mary’s blog:
Toms River, NJ
Choice of 1 main dish, 2 sides and served with a half pint of milk
Baked Ziti with Meatballs or Macaroni and Cheese
Potato Wedges and Applesauce

Pau, France
Served with slices of baguette and water
Turkey Pieces with Sweet and Sour Sauce
Rice with Diced Vegetables “Brunoise”
Creamy Sheep Cheese and an Apple

You might think that they have a great deal more $ to spend on each school lunch.  According to a recent video on CBS news  (worth a watch) about $5 per child is budgeted in Parisian schools, but in southern France one chef is creating gourmet feasts for ½ that – an amount comparable to King County.

The French feel it is important to train young children to appreciate good food.  Gourmet lunches made from fresh food begin in nursery school.  Lunch time in a French school is generally longer than in the US so that the children can eat at a leisurely pace and enjoy the company of their friends.  Imagine that.