Like many large, urban school districts, Houston ISD does almost all of its cooking at a huge central kitchen, with the food then trucked to our 300 individual schools for reheating and other final preparation. There are a great many advantages to central kitchens, including improved food safety and tighter quality control. Moreover, despite most people’s prejudice in favor of “on site, scratch cooking,” the food produced in a central kitchen doesn’t have to be depressingly “institutional.”
This morning I attended a Houston ISD/Aramark Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting in which I and fellow PAC members were asked to sample several of the new menu items introduced this fall. We tasted chicken Creole served with brown rice; a Mexican casserole with baked chips, ground meat (part turkey, part beef) and low fat cheeses; BBQ chicken drumsticks and thighs; the already much-talked about acorn squash; and a banana cake studded with chocolate chips.
My personal verdict? Really good. (No, readers, I swear they didn’t slip me any funny Kool-Aid at the meeting.) The food was attractive, flavorful and definitely something I’d be fine serving my kids. I think my kids would agree — if they could be persuaded to try it.
The problem, of course, is ensuring that the food leaving the central kitchen in a palatable state is actually served properly by the individual schools. Many school kitchen workers are relatively unskilled, and they may improvise in preparing food by, e.g., heating it far above the recommended temperature, either out of ignorance or in a misguided attempt to ensure food safety. (This might explain my daughter’s description of last week’s steamed spinach as “dark green and drippy.”) Or the problem may be the other extreme, i.e., food that’s served too cold, a complaint I’ve heard a few times in my own children’s lunch room. Houston ISD Food Services says it’s working on the problem, and may even send to each school photographs of what the finished food is supposed to look like.
I don’t envy the task of a trying to ensure quality control at 300 local schools, and I’ll write more about the issue of on-site quality control as I learn more from my district. But mostly I just wanted to give some kudos to Houston’s Food Services — the meal served to us this morning was great, and definitely what we want to see more of on our kids’ trays.