Interview With School Food Consultant Kate Adamick: Bringing Scratch Cooking Back to the Lunch Room

by Bettina Elias Siegel on January 26, 2011

Kate Adamick, principal of Food Systems Solutions LLC, is a well-known school food consultant who is committed to bringing back scratch cooking to America’s schools.  Through her Cook for America® culinary boot camps, she works around the country to provide school food personnel with culinary training, turning them from re-heaters of processed food into what she calls passionate “Lunch Teachers.”  Before getting into the world of school food, Kate practiced law, worked as a professional chef in both white tablecloth restaurants and institutions, and also owned a large wholesale and retail bakery.

I’m so pleased to be able to present today my interview with Kate Adamick.

TLT:  I know you’re a big proponent of bringing back scratch cooking in the school setting, but it’s a common belief that scratch cooking costs more than the reheating of processed food, for a variety of reasons:  the increased labor costs associated with chopping, assembling and other hands-on food prep; the higher cost of fresh foods vs. corn/soy-based processed foods; the cost of equipment for site-based food preparation; the need for facilities to house the equipment and the food; etc.  Is this a misperception — can scratch cooking be accomplished under current reimbursement rates with no outside or community-raised funding?  Can you explain how that might (or might not) be the case?

KA: If the only change that happens at a school is replacing canned fruit and vegetables with fresh produce, it will most definitely cost more.  However, from my perspective as a school food consultant who spends a significant amount of time each year doing onsite assessments in public schools around the country, the common belief that scratch-cooking costs more than reheating processed food is ill-founded.  This is particularly true in school districts with high rates of students who are eligible for free and reduced meals, in which there is a tremendous opportunity to dramatically increase revenue through breakfast in the classroom programs and to cut costs by no longer paying manufacturers to turn free raw commodity meat products in costly processed items.  Even in wealthier school districts, existing costs can usually be significantly cut by such practices as eliminating the practice of portioning items into individual containers prior to service (which reduces labor hours and cuts costs for packaging), minimizing the number of choices offered daily (which reduces labor hours through economies of scale), and carefully planning cycle menu to control costs and manage inventory.  When a school district’s food service operations are examined holistically, the potential for increased revenue and cost reduction can reach millions of dollars each year.

TLT:  Can you tell us about the school food “boot camps” that you run?

KA:  When Chef Andrea Martin and I created Cook for America®, we envisioned a nation of school food service personnel who are trained, empowered and inspired to provide healthy cooked-from-scratch school meals for America’s children.  Our mission is to provide concentrated and comprehensive culinary training that transforms America’s school food service personnel into informed, passionate, and socially responsible professional culinarians who lead and support a school’s food service program by  preparing healthy, cooked-from-scratch school meals and imparting sound food systems knowledge.

The 5-day Cook for America® Culinary Boot Camps cover all basic competencies necessary to prepare food service directors, kitchen managers, lead cooks, and support staff to run professional, cooked-from-scratch school lunch operations.

Major topics include: an overview of the school lunch food system from an historical and policy perspective; food safety and sanitation; culinary math; basic knife skills; foundational cooking techniques related to proteins, grains, legumes, vegetables, sauces, and baked items; menu planning; and time management. A critical step towards professionalizing the school food work environment and workforce, the Cook for America® Culinary Boot Camps build skills, confidence, awareness, and motivation among its participants.  As a direct result of their participation in the Cook for America® Culinary Boot Camps, school food service personnel are transformed into school Lunch Teachers™ who work as culinary ambassadors, embracing their crucial role in nurturing America’s school children.

We also run instructor training programs in which professional chefs become certified to use the Cook for America® Culinary Boot Camp curriculum and teaching methods to help create Lunch Teachers™ in their own states.

At Cook for America®, we believe that school food is the solution, not the problem!

TLT:  How do the boot camp skills you teach translate in schools in which there is little equipment besides a freezer and an oven for reheating?  What do you say to schools that no longer have the labor force and/or equipment for scratch cooking?

KA:  Most school district food service departments don’t need a bigger labor force to return to scratch-cooking, they need a better trained labor force.  The equipment needs, however, vary from school to school.  An oven, for example, can be used to cook raw chicken just as easily as it can be used to cook chicken nuggets, but the cooler space can frequently be problematic.  In some districts, the best solution is to utilize one or more of its larger kitchen facilities as central kitchen to produce the entrées for the entire district.  Sometimes this also requires staggered shifts of food service workers so that the kitchens can be operational from early morning through late evening.  In short, there’s no single solution that will work for all districts, and coming up with the right solution for each situation usually requires thinking outside of the box.  As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

TLT:  On a related note, I read that in Colorado, where you conducted boot camps, each school got $1000 to upgrade their equipment.  Where did that funding come from and is $1000 generally enough to get a school kitchen up and running for scratch cooking?

KA:  During the Cook for America® Culinary Boot Camps, quite a bit of time is spent teaching the Lunch Teachers™ how to save time and money in their daily operations, with the intent that they will be able use that money to help purchase additional equipment.  In Colorado, The Colorado Health Foundation donates $1,000 for each school district that participates in the boot camps, which is intended as a token amount to allow a district to purchase a small piece of equipment (such as an immersion blender or a set of chef knives) that will help the Lunch Teachers™ be more efficient in their daily operations.  The Colorado Health Foundation also makes large financial grants to districts that are willing (and eligible) to go through the full assessment process.  In California, The Orfalea Foundations’ s’Cool Food Initiative makes large financial grants to all eligible districts that participate in the boot camps and can demonstrate both the commitment to return to scratch-cooking.

TLT:  I’ll end with a selfish question:  what would you do in a district like my own, in which 240,000 meals a day are prepared in a gleaming, $52 million central kitchen for reheating at local schools?  Currently, only about 40% of the food is prepared through that kitchen — the rest is still processed elsewhere — and even much of the “scratch” cooking at the kitchen uses mixes and processed components.   (By the way, we also use a food service management company — Aramark.)  Any off-the-top-of-your-head thoughts on how to get even more scratch cooked food onto kids’ trays in my own district?

KA: I no longer work in school districts that contract their meal service out to food service providers.  Children don’t stop learning just because it is meal time.  In my opinion, introducing a for-profit service provider into a public education environment amounts to an abdication of responsibility that does little more than put the corporation’s well-being over the welfare of children.  Were your district to be interested in going self-op, I would be delighted to discuss how to better utilize a $52 million central kitchen in a way that would put healthier food into your children’s bodies and less profits into food service management companies’ pockets.

*  *  *

Hmm . . . Kate’s last answer certainly leaves me with food for thought!  :-)  Many thanks to Kate Adamick for coming by The Lunch Tray.

You can read more about Kate and the work she’s doing here.

 

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Susan Rubin January 26, 2011 at 7:36 am

Kate is one sharp cookie who knows the issue of school food inside and out. Her comment about for profit corporations in the school cafeteria is something that many of us need to give serious consideration to.
These corporations are REQUIRED to turn a profit for their shareholders. That requirement comes before anything else.
As parents, our bottom line is the health and well-being of our kids.
For companies like Aramark, their bottom line is profit for shareholders. See the problem?

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Dr. Susan Rubin January 26, 2011 at 7:50 am

Here is a link to a piece I wrote in MrsQ’s Fed Up with Lunch blog about the clarification between food service in schools that are self-operated and those with outside for-profit FSMCs
http://fedupwithschoollunch.blogspot.com/2010/05/guest-blogger-food-service-management.html

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Melissa A. Trainer January 26, 2011 at 9:04 am

Last year, I wrote an article for The Oregonian’s food section. It was about one determined lunch lady in Alaska who managed to get locally caught wild sockeye salmon onto the lunch trays in her remote school. She used a local resource, negotiated with fishermen, saved money, and improved the menu considerably. Read the article here: http://www.oregonlive.com/foodday/index.ssf/2009/09/lunch_lady_in_alaska_catches_a.html
Thanks, Melissa A. Trainer

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bettina elias siegel January 27, 2011 at 8:01 am

Melissa – thanks for sharing that link! I’ll take a look at it.

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jenna Food w/ Kid Appeal January 26, 2011 at 9:20 am

perfect timing for this piece. SBISDs DSHAC school food reform sub-committee meets for the first time Thursday. thanks for scoring the interview and sharing it here.

i’m happy (yet skeptical) about the answer to the cost question. i can see how once the transformation has been made (staff trained, equipment purchased, process improved, change-management implemented) costs could be the same, but what about the cost of changing the process and implementing the new one?

Kate – how do parent groups, or student health advisory councils approach the school board with such a recommendation and succeed in getting a school food program change (scratch cooking) approved?

bettina – is your PAC considering an approach to the school board about a recommendation to remove ARAMARK?

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bettina elias siegel January 27, 2011 at 8:01 am

Jenna — it wouldn’t be our PAC, since we’re supposed to be working WITH Aramark. But it might be something that, e.g, the SHAC could take on, or interested parent groups. The issue is, how much interest is there in the nutrition issue generally in Houston/on the school board? I have a feeling that most people in Houston and most board members are happy with (or at least OK with) the status quo . . . I also think that we’d have an uphill battle right now getting anyone to pay attention to this issue at all in the midst of drastic state budget cuts and the threat to our magnet program. Parents have only so much “bandwith,” as they say.

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Bri January 26, 2011 at 11:21 am

This provides both startling clarity and a rash of new questions. What an amazing interview. I particularly love the part where she says that introducing a for-profit entity into an educational setting is an abdication of responsibility — she’s absolutely right that the kids’ learning doesn’t stop just because they’re eating lunch. In fact, their eyes and ears may be MORE open in a setting like the lunchroom. We simply don’t give our children enough credit for being intelligent and aware of the subliminal messaging they’re getting from the decision-makers in their districts.

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Maggie January 26, 2011 at 4:29 pm

I realize you are running a business and you may not be able/willing to comment on items this specific, I completely understand! However, I’m curious where my district stands compared to the ideal. We have decent kitchens – a bit dated and undersized in some cases, but serviceable, and staff that I’d be willing to say are quite capable of cooking. Oh, and yes, self-operated, but with low free/reduced percentage.

How is “cooked from scratch” defined? Mostly related to the main dish not being a processed/pre-prepared item? Or all fresh produce for fruits/veg? Breads baked on site?

I’d be interested to know some of the districts you’ve worked with to see the types of menus they are now able to offer.

A more general question about the idea that school meals should be a integral part of the school day – how do we bring about that change? Is there a lack of respect because the meal programs are “bad” or are the meal programs “bad” because there is no respect? I sometimes feel the food is going to be the last component to fall into place. If the mealtimes/food service are not given the status of an important part of the day, many of the other improvements seem kind of futile. For example, if the meal time is so short students don’t have time to eat.

Fascinating ideas for thinking outside the norm – larger production facilities running ’round the clock or such. Really has me thinking.

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Max Mendoza April 14, 2011 at 6:53 pm

Yes, yes, while this is all very fascinating, ladies, if you would be so kind, I am doing research about vegetarian cooking and saving the planet. Thusly, I’ll pose the question: is vegetarianism a rational choice, with regards to environmentalism? I’ll ask you to weigh in?

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Bettina Elias Siegel April 14, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Max: As this is a relatively old post, I’m not sure if enough commenters will see this and respond but I’ll put in my two cents. I’m certainly no expert on vegetarianism, but from all I’ve read about it, it does have a lighter impact on the environment than a meat-based diet, especially if the meat is raised using current methods (CAFO’s.)

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