'Chef Brad' tests recipes for new school lunch guidelines

Monday, February 27, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:33 a.m. CST, Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Mill Creek Elementary School cafeteria manager Janis Snow serves a fifth-grader a meatball sub during lunch Feb. 16. Head chef Brad Faith served the meatballs to test out new foods for the new Columbia Public Schools food regulations.

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. 

New lunch guidelines

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.

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"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. 

Community effort

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

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Nicole Gerdemann February 27, 2012 | 10:53 a.m.

As a parent of a first grade student, I am very happy that healthier options for lunches are being looked at. Yes, they have created healthier options over the years such as whole wheat buns, but the district needs to do away with chocolate and strawberry milk being offered to the young children daily for lunch. I eat lunch at my son's school about once a week and almost every kid chooses the flavored milk that contains high fructose corn syrup. If my child was to have a sweetened drink for lunch, I would rather him be able to choose 100% juices like orange or apple without having to pay extra for the juice. They also need to look at some of the newer options they are giving the younger set of children.

I would strongly encourage the school district to look at the length of elementary school lunch periods as well. The lunch period is set at 20 minutes at most schools but some do get longer periods such as 30 minutes. Each time that I go to son's school to see him for his 11:50 a.m. lunch, they do not get to enter the lunchroom to get their lunch until the previous eaters leave the lunchroom, at approximately 11:55 or later, then they have to line up about 5-7 minutes before their lunch period is over. On average, they get anywhere from 8-12 minutes to stand in line, get their food and pay for it, then sit down to eat. So really not a lot of time to actually eat. The time that they are standing around waiting for the playground monitor or their teacher to come, could be time that they are getting in valuable nutrition. Instead, they stand in line and get in trouble for talking too much.

I generally do not eat lunch when I go to see my son as there is not enough time for an adult eat, let alone a child who wants to visit a little bit with their table mates.

My son is at one of the schools with the highest reduced or free rate lunches and these kids may not get to eat much outside of school. They are being forced to shove the food down as fast as they can and sucking down corn syrup infused milk on top. In speaking with other parents who have kids at other schools with 20 minute lunch periods, their sentiment is the same in that this is not a long enough lunch period for elementary children.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield February 27, 2012 | 11:05 a.m.

Does CPS no longer allow students to bring lunch from home? I always brown-bagged it. That eliminates waiting in line, rushed eating and parental concerns about overly sugary and fatty foods, and it's cheaper.

(Report Comment)
Sally Willis February 27, 2012 | 11:44 a.m.

Jimmy I think I'm on the same wave link as you here, if the child brings their own food from home the parent has complete control over what is being served and the child won't have to wait in line at all!

(Report Comment)
Nicole Gerdemann February 27, 2012 | 12:22 p.m.

My son takes his lunch most days. Brown bagging it from home does not help those children that are on the free/reduced lunch program. They may not have the resources from home to bring healthy lunches or parents that do not care if they have healthy lunches or a meal at all. If they get the sack lunch from school, they are hit heavy with processed sugars. Those children get an Uncrustables PB & J sandwich, goldfish crackers, a rice krisy treat, an apple or orange and their choice of milk.
You have to look at it that this may be a child's only meal of the day. And, 8-12 minutes is just not long enough for a child to eat a meal even if they sit down to eat their brown bagged lunch from home.

(Report Comment)
Sally Willis February 27, 2012 | 12:51 p.m.

In this day, in this city, there is just no excuse for a school lunch to be a childs only meal of the day! I am so tired of hearing that load, there are sooooo many resources out there for the hungry! Woe is me! There are food stamps, welfare, soup kitchens, food banks... and the list goes on and on, so stop. That is not the only meal for any child and now they have buddy packs for the parents who sell their food stamps. Not very supportive because I know entirely too many people who use and abuse the system I support. :)

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield February 27, 2012 | 1:11 p.m.

When more than one in three CPS students is on free or reduced lunch, it's clear that too many people in this town don't bother to consider whether they can support a child before making one.

(Report Comment)
Sally Willis February 27, 2012 | 3:33 p.m.

Jimmy My child qualifies for reduced lunch how I have no idea I will assume it's because I'm a single parent I choose not to take "advantage' of that!

(Report Comment)
Emily Senoff February 27, 2012 | 4:59 p.m.

Hi, My name is Emily Senoff and I'm the reporter who wrote this story.

I was reading the comment about kids choosing the flavored milk with high fructose corn syrup. I just talked with Laina Fullum, the director of nutrition services for Columbia Public Schools. She told me the strawberry and chocolate flavored milk does not have any high fructose corn syrup, but still has the same amount of calcium and vitamin A.

Thank you for commenting.

Emily Senoff

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer February 28, 2012 | 4:04 p.m.

Submitting on behalf of reader Linda Coats:

I commend you on all of your efforts to make school lunches healthier.
After recently seeing the movie Forks over Knives I have drastically changed my eating habits and tell everyone I know about the movie, hoping our society can make more healthy food choices.
Anything you can do to make the lunches more plant based and use less sugar and oils is important to the health of our children and our society, as children take home ideas learned at school.

Joy Mayer,
Columbia Missourian

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams February 28, 2012 | 4:23 p.m.

The most recent Science News, February 25, 2012, page 9, has a story written by Bruce Bower. It discusses a recent paper in the Sociology of Education (January, 2012) that concludes "boys and girls, kids from rich families and poor ones, and students of different races displayed no greater tendency to get heavier or to become obese in middle schools stocked with sugary and fatty goodies, as opposed to schools free of junk food, sociologist Jennifer Van Hook and Clair Altman of Pennsylvania State University report in the..."

Further, "This surprising finding---based on research that followed almost 20,000 kids through middle school---suggests that obesity prevention programs should target children in their homes and communities during the preschool years, when eating habits form."

Me: The study is under criticism by various nutrition experts and contradicts a prior national study conducted in 2004-2005. The main criticism is the belief that school principals, the identifier of foods at their schools for the researchers, did not know what foods were available at their schools and, hence, provided insufficient/incomplete data. I do not know the validity of these criticisms.


(Report Comment)
mike mentor February 28, 2012 | 5:04 p.m.

Right now our government is spending money to help potato chip makers develop brand awareness and supporting anti potato chip nutritional info for schools. Guess that way Owebama can say he won either way...

(Report Comment)
Joy Mayer March 1, 2012 | 3:33 p.m.

Submitted on behalf of reader Betty Sapp (who says she also credits Jessica Seinfeld's cookbook with some of the ideas):

What I do w/my grandchildren is puree vegetables and add to different dishes, very doable.
— Puree spinach and add to meatloaf, they love it
— Puree broccoli and add to chicken and rice, although this makes it green in color, but no crunch
— I use applesauce when baking instead of oil, same amt that is called for ex: 1 cup oil I use 1 cup applesauce
— Instead of sugar go with stevia (all natural) you use a lot less ex: for a gallon of tea I only use heaping tablespoon of stevia versus 1 cup sugar (using less sugar will also help ADD problems)
— Mash cauliflower w/potatoes
— Zucchini cakes (make like potatoes cakes) shred zucchini and add egg, flour, a little salt, and pepper
— Make carrot/zucchini cakes (muffins)
— Cut back on grains (too processed this day and age)/starches

Joy Mayer, Columbia Missourian,
submitting for Betty Sapp

(Report Comment)

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