COLUMBIA — Brad Faith, head chef for Columbia Public Schools, has been spending a lot of time talking with kids about what they want to eat.
The fourth- and fifth-grade students at Mill Creek Elementary School are representative of Faith's test subjects. He uses Mill Creek because of its large kitchen and close proximity to Rock Bridge High School, where Faith usually works.
The new nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program that take effect this fall include requirements for:
- Two separate servings of fruits and vegetables.
- Fruit must be offered daily at breakfast and lunch.
- Vegetables must be offered daily at lunch that include at least one dark green, orange, legumes and other vegetable; each of those subgroups would need to be served each week.
- Whole grains must be offered in half the foods upon the start of the school, and all foods must be whole grain after two years of the new standards.
- A daily meat/meat alternative must be offered at breakfast.
- Unflavored milk must be fat-free or low-fat and flavored milk must be fat-free.
- Sodium content in food must be lowered over a 10-year period
- Food served must have zero grams of trans fat.
"I know that I get honest opinions," Faith said of the Mill Creek students, who he has gotten to know over the past months.
Faith is doing more than talking. He's testing out new foods to see what portion sizes work for the kids and how easy or difficult the recipes are for the kitchen staff.
New federal nutrition standards for school lunches set to take effect this fall are designed to create healthier diets for children and address the obesity epidemic. Faith continues to experiment with ways to create dishes that will be enjoyed by his student diners and fit into the new standards.
"We prepared some meatball subs for you today," Faith told a lunchroom full of students, who responded with a chorus of enthusiastic cheers.
Faith made the subs because the meatballs are a food provided by the government and there happened to be a lot of them in the warehouse.
Even though the meatballs and subs — served with low-fat cheese, a 51 percent whole-grain bun and marinara sauce — met the new guidelines, Faith plans to make the recipe even healthier for next school year. By substituting chicken or turkey meatballs and fortifying the sauce with more fresh vegetables, he can lower the fat content even more.
"They're getting a lot better," Graham Geyer, a fifth-grader at Mill Creek, said of the lunches prepared by "Chef Brad."
It's a slow process in such a large school district, so Faith is "biting off small pieces" to prepare for the change.
He plans to experiment with ethnic dishes, including tacos, fajitas and Asian and Mediterranean cuisines. These types of dishes incorporate vegetables in a new way so kids will get the required servings.
There’s “not a lot that’s different, it's just how you approach the recipes,” Faith said.
A New Approach
Efforts by Columbia Public Schools to improve the nutritional value of lunches has been an ongoing process. Schools are already serving low-fat and fat-free milk and have been serving fresh fruits and vegetables for at least 10 years.
But a few things need to change before the new standards go into effect this fall. Instead of students being offered a fruit or vegetable with their lunch, they will be required to take one, Laina Fullum, director of nutrition services for Columbia Public Schools, said.
More whole-grain foods are also part of the new guidelines. Beginning this fall, half of all grains served must be at least 51 percent whole grain, Fullum said.
Local schools must also lower the amount of salt in the foods they serve, and Faith's new way of approaching the recipes will help.
Cooking from scratch will allow the cooks rather than the manufacturers to control the amount of sodium, Fullum said.
One food that Faith will make himself to control the amount of sodium is the cheese sauce for macaroni and cheese. The sauce can be made from scratch using low-fat cheese and more natural ingredients, Faith said.
Scratch cooking, he said, gives the food an element of freshness — like adding fresh toppings and sauce to pizza.
Making It Work
To make scratch cooking possible, Columbia Public Schools is working to streamline food production, Fullum said.
This means the food would be cooked in three or five regional kitchens. Trucks would take the food to other schools where the only preparation would be reheating, she said.
Centralized kitchens are "the main way for us to conquer the guidelines," Faith said.
Cooking the food in only three or five kitchens makes it easier to manage what’s going on, keep track of inventory and costs and limit waste, Faith said.
While the nutrition standards begin this fall, Fullum said, it will take a little more than two years for schools to consolidate cooking into three or five kitchens.
Fullum said the decision about where to put these regional kitchens depends on whether the school has “enough storage space and the overall capacity to produce for four to five other schools.” Current equipment and proximity to a number of schools are also taken into account, she said.
A committee called Focus on Freshness has been assembled to figure out these decisions.
Keeping it fresh
A greater variety of fresh vegetables at salad bars is one of the biggest changes Shannon Brown, a cafeteria employee at Shepard Boulevard Elementary School, has seen in her eight years of working for Columbia Public Schools.
A variety of fresh fruit is another big change, Patty Evans, who has worked in the cafeteria at Shepard since 2000, said.
“I’m glad we're beginning to move forward,” she said.
Missouri Foods 4 Missouri People, a group that buys locally grown produce to sell to schools and some businesses in Columbia, provides the fresh fruits and vegetables for Shepard and the rest of the public schools in Columbia, Brown said.
The school also does “Tasting Tuesdays” where the cooks will test out new foods and flavors for the students, Evans said.
Asian beef and broccoli, vegetable burgers and apricots are some foods that have been tested on past Tuesdays, Brown said.
Faith can make the healthiest meal possible for kids, but that doesn't mean they will eat it. Even making healthy food taste good does not guarantee the kids will choose the healthy option.
Foods such as ice cream, chips and candy should be limited in a kid's diet, Faith said. And the kids have to be comfortable with that.
It's a "matter of encouraging children," Faith said.
Kids eat a limited number of meals a year at school, so eating habits can be affected by what they get at home or in local eateries, Faith said.
Faith and the folks in nutrition services can only do so much. Parents should "lead by example," he said, because they are "our front-line soldiers in the battle to improve children's diets."
What suggestions about making meals healthier would you have for Chef Brad and the Columbia Public Schools? Comment below, or email submissions@ColumbiaMissourian.com.