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


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.”

Zena Martinez. (Photo courtesy of the Chef Ann Foundation)

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.

“What do their choices mean for the nutrition of a child and the impact on the environment—and for the food system?”

Mara Fleishman, Chef Ann Foundation’s chief executive officer, says she conceived of the fellowship after noticing the same small group of people showing up at events promoting scratch cooking in schools, including founder Chef Ann Cooper, the foundation’s founder. Fleishman says the fellowship was intentionally advertised to mid-level managers, with the hope that after completing the fellowship, the fellows would stick around their districts, ascend into leadership roles, and establish lasting change.

“We can put them through a comprehensive 12-month program where we’re helping them understand the tenets of scratch cooking. Not just how to lead a scratch-cook program, but what does it mean?” she says. “What do their choices mean for the nutrition of a child and the impact on the environment—and for the food system?”

The fellowship aligns with a larger movement to include more fresh ingredients in school food. According to the USDA’s latest farm-to-school census from 2019, about 43 million children participate in farm-to-school programs every year, and nearly 68,000 schools feature local foods on their menu.

Still, the fellows face unique challenges rippling outward from the pandemic. Labor shortages persist, of course; but also, during the early days of COVID, the federal government made lunch free to all 50.6 million public school students nationwide. Last fall, the universal meal program expired in most states. A recent School Nutrition Association (SNA) survey of more than 1,000 school meal program directors found that among programs that must now charge for meals, there was an a 23 percent drop in breakfast participation on average and a 13 percent decline in lunch.

In Martinez’ district, the drop has been even more dramatic. “We have probably lost 38 percent participation [for lunch],” she says, adding that at one high school where last year they were serving 1,900 daily lunches, “now, we’re lucky to serve 800.” According to the SNA survey, about 60 percent of school meal program directors said that they were now charging students not eligible for free lunch.

And of those charging for meals, nearly all have experienced an increase in unpaid meal charges or debt, a burden on school district budgets, not to mention families struggling to keep up. Lower participation combined with unpaid meal debt means less money available for school food programs, limiting meal program directors’ ability to experiment with more labor-intensive or expensive approaches to meals.





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