Many students still opt for processed, breaded chicken patties and french fries.

Yesterday: Local school divisions are not always successful in getting children to eat better.

Today: Making cafeteria food more desirable faces bureaucratic obstacles.

Like most children, students in both Charlottesville and Albemarle County public schools love pizza and chicken nuggets.

They also love homemade food, and said they’d like it if the schools increased the amount of scratch-cooking that’s already underway.

“It’s much healthier, and we’re really pushing to use local products,” said Christina Connell, co-coordinator of child nutrition for the city school division.

While schools officials and students alike agree that fresher is better, the schools are quick to point out that increasing scratch-cooking isn’t possible under current budget circumstances.

“It’s a lot cheaper to buy prepared food,” Connell said. “It’s less labor, less trouble and less room for error.”

Charlottesville is in its second year of an initiative to offer one fresh, homemade dish per week. Because November includes National Farms to Schools Week, city schools will have nine homemade choices this month.

Items that Charlottesville’s cooks make from scratch include broccoli corn chowder, spaghetti with turkey meatballs and potato bacon soup, as well as salsa and hummus.

Albemarle’s biggest homemade hit of late has been a burrito bar where students can design their own burritos in the style of a Chipotle restaurant.

Both divisions also incorporate local products when they can, utilizing vendors such as the Local Food Hub, Standard Produce and Cavalier Produce. Albemarle also works with the Farm at Red Hill.

And the students can tell when the food is fresh.

“I have a particular thing with frozen foods, and I kind of feel like some of the lunch foods taste like they’re frozen,” said Lewis Tate, an eighth-grader at Charlottesville’s Buford Middle School. “One of the reasons I pack my lunch so often is because if I don’t know where my food came from I don’t like eating it.”

Small salads featuring lettuce and radishes from Meriwether Lewis Elementary School’s garden. Kitchen staff introduces new food to students in small portions.

“Most of the food is just defrosted,” said Maggie Vidal, a sophomore at Western Albemarle High.

Shannon Paschall, a sophomore at Charlottesville High, said he usually buys pizza for lunch, but said it rarely tastes fresh.

Across the board, however, students praised the homemade food.

“I like that you can make your own wraps and salads,” said Kiki Dowell, a freshman at Charlottesville High.

Sophomore Max Stuart said he and his friends love CHS’s paninis, but wish the school offered them more often.

Stephanie Cornell, a sophomore at Western Albemarle, said burrito day is the most popular at her school.

Best practices

Kate Adamick and Ann Cooper are national leaders in the field of school food. Adamick, co-founder of Cook for America, tours the country leading weeklong Lunch Teachers Boot Camps in which she and her staff teach school cooks how to prepare meals from scratch.

Cooper has spent the last several years reinventing school food first in Berkeley, California, and most recently as the director of food services for the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado, which serves about 30,000 students.

“When I came in, the food was typical bad school food,” Cooper said. “It was highly processed chicken nuggets, tater tots, pizza pockets and corn dogs.”

“This is the beginning of my sixth year and now there are no processed foods, everything is cooked from scratch,” Cooper added, citing that the number of students buying school meals in Boulder has grown 11 percent since 2013 and is up another 5 percent this school year.

Adamick said one of the biggest needs she sees in school kitchens across the country is the need for culinary training, such as knife skills and basic cooking skills like roasting, sautéing, simmering and stewing.

Cooper echoed that sentiment.

“Professional development is of the utmost importance, because we can’t expect better food to come out of our kitchens until we teach people how to deal with food,” she said.

Christina Pitsenberger, Albemarle County’s director of child nutrition, said it would be nice to have more funding for professional development.

“There is a training curve, and not everyone comes in with the same experience,” she said.

Richard McLernan, the cafeteria director at Western Albemarle, agreed, adding that most of the kitchen staff possess only basic culinary skills.

Antoine Sims, a cook at Western Albemarle who has received culinary training from his second job, said he’d love to cook from scratch because it would be healthier for the children and is simply more fun.

Heavy regulation

Another complication, schools officials say, is that scratch-cooking creates more work to comply with food safety regulations.

“The fresher the ingredients, the better, but the health department doesn’t want us to cook raw meat,” McLernan said.

Typical school food is “basically a heat and eat product with low potential for having a hazardous product in it,” Connell said.

In fact, Charlottesville schools stopped offering homemade meatloaf because the health department insisted it be delivered to each school cooked, rather than prepared at the central kitchen at Charlottesville High School and then baked at each school, said Sandra Vazquez, a co-coordinator of nutrition for the division.

Eric Myers, an environmental health supervisor for the Virginia Department of Health, said elementary school children are considered a high-risk population for susceptibility to foodborne illness, so the department recommends delivering food that is thoroughly cooked.

If a division were to start handling more raw meat, Myers said his team would work with staff to “verify that they have a cross-contamination prevention plan, and that all employees were trained on cooking to proper temperatures.”

That said, Myers was quick to praise Charlottesville and Albemarle’s operations.

“[Their] school systems are some of our best operators, they do a great job with safety, so we hold them in high opinion,” Myers said. “Sometimes we have new inspectors start out with the schools to calibrate them to what a good operation looks like.”

Cooper said that the switch isn’t easy, but it’s possible.

“When I first started making changes, I called the health department, told them the type of stuff we wanted to do, and that we wanted to partner with them because health and sanitation is important to us,” Cooper said. “Is it harder than chicken nuggets and tater tots? Absolutely. Is it a barrier that makes this impossible? Not at all.”

With respect to the dollars, Cooper has been able to reduce operational costs and invest those savings in higher-quality food products.

The first move was to reduce the number of kitchens from 32 to three.

“If you’re cooking in 32 places, the amount of time it takes and the skill set you need in 32 places can really be mitigated in cooking in three places and shipping,” she said. “And the amount of food waste that you have, the amount of food that you’re trying to score, process, keep track of, keep safe — you can mitigate that by cooking in fewer places.”

Cooper also hired professionally trained staff and developed recipes. Once they eliminated processed foods, however, Boulder found that it needed to replace its freezers with refrigerators.

“When you go from canned fruit cocktails to apples, all of a sudden you need refrigeration,” Cooper said. “Just the idea that you’re going from a highly processed food that doesn’t go bad for 72 hours sitting on the countertop to raw chicken where you have to worry about making sure it’s cooked correctly … there’s an educational component, a facilities component, everything changes.”

Cost savings

As a percentage of revenues, Boulder’s food cost has decreased by about 5 percent, while food costs have risen by about the same.

“That’s actually what you want,” Cooper said. “As far as I’m concerned, we’d like to bring payroll costs more in line with traditional food service operations, and to be able to use that money that you’re saving in food payroll costs to put more money into better food.”

Adamick said many divisions she works with aren’t seeing the savings that could be captured within their existing systems, and that some of that money is spent making food the schools receive for free from the government less healthy.

Schools who participate in the National School Lunch Program receive food through two main avenues. The first is through a division’s procurement process where they put out a call for bids and contract with outside vendors. The second is through the federal commodity program, which provides free food to schools and is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

What concerns Adamick is when she sees schools pay a third party to process the free commodity food. For example, instead of a school division ordering 100 pounds of free chicken to be delivered frozen and cooked at the school, they would pay a company to process that chicken into nuggets.

“When commodity food comes into my kitchen, I can cook it how I like, which means that I can control how healthy it is,” Adamick said. “But if I say that I want chicken nuggets, you divert it to a processor who turns it into a chicken nugget, but then I get a highly processed chicken nugget.”

Pitsenberger praised the commodity program, but said it’s often easier to procure products such as meat through the division’s food vendor for that year.

“The commodity program is a valuable source, but you’re committing to what you’ll want the year ahead, so there’s a lot more planning,” Pitsenberger said, adding that meat will often arrive in large frozen blocks that take days to thaw, and that it is only available during certain times of the year.

This year, Charlottesville’s total nutrition budget is about $2 million, $103,053 of which is commodity money.

Of those commodity funds, $34,081 will be spent on produce, $20,000 on processed food such as pizza and sandwich meat and $48,972 for unprocessed items such as beef and chicken.

The division plans to spend about $5,000 on third-party processors.

Of its $4.8 million nutrition budget last year, Albemarle received $300,000 in commodity funds. $75,000 of those funds were spent on produce, $140,800 on processed food and $84,200 on unprocessed food.

This year Albemarle’s total food budget is approximately $4.9 million, $285,000 of which will be in the form of the commodity allotment. $125,000 of that will be spent on produce, $50,000 on processed food and $110,000 on unprocessed food.

Albemarle plans to spend an additional $10,000 sending food to third-party processors.

Pitsenberger said the drop in spending on processed food is due to a 38 percent uptick on spending for fresh fruit and unprocessed food.

“By having less entitlement funds used on entrée items we have more flexibility using revenue from sales for entrée items and not committed to those selected in the commodity program,” she said.

Budget burden

Looking beyond budgets, Cooper questions the entire school lunch business model, which expects programs to be self-sustaining.

“Why is it that food service departments are the only departments in schools that are expected to raise all the money that it costs them to run?” she asked. “Why don’t we see the health of our children as important as teaching them English and science and math?”

“Do healthy kids and well-fed kids learn better? Do they have less discipline problems? What other costs in the school are mitigated or exacerbated by good food or bad food?” Cooper asked. “When you start looking at it from a really holistic standpoint, then you can get beyond the question of spending $1.25 or $1.20.”

Each year, Charlottesville’s nutrition program runs about $20,000 in the red, assistant superintendent Jim Henderson said.

“Because we choose to buy local produce, to scratch-cook, which causes an increase in menu production, and because we choose to offer our employees health benefits, we rely on the division [to cover the shortfall],” Henderson said.

Pitsenberger said Albemarle tries to operate in the black in order to keep a small fund balance for issues such as equipment repairs.

“It’s year-to-year,” she said. “The majority of the time we’re in the black, but we have some years when we need equipment replaced.”

As Charlottesville and Albemarle move forward, both divisions plan to pay close attention to school food.

Pitsenberger said her approach is all about baby steps.

“It went from getting Albemarle High School back on the National School Lunch Program and not selling sodas at lunch to getting the deep fryers out of the kitchens … to getting more items that are whole grain and taking a look at sugar,” she said.

Vazquez, of Charlottesville schools, said the health of all students is important, but it’s crucial to convince the smallest ones first.

“If you can get the children in the elementary schools to start eating like this, it’s going to follow them through,” she said.