School Kitchen or Janitor’s Closet? You Decide.

by Bettina Elias Siegel on May 1, 2012

Back in July, 2010, I was about two months into writing The Lunch Tray and had been involved in school food reform activities here in Houston for about five months.

Due to the impending passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school food reform was frequently in the national news.  In particular, there were many glowing reports about Michelle Obama’s various Let’s Move! school food reform initiatives, including “Chefs Move to Schools,” a campaign to encourage chefs to adopt their local schools for cooking demonstrations and nutrition advice, and a school food recipe contest for kids.  Like everyone else, I applauded those efforts.

And then I happened to come across a CNN piece interviewing Dana Woldow, a San Francisco school food advocate (now a friend of TLT but, back then, an unfamiliar name to me).  Dana said:

You can talk all you like about chefs moving to schools and sharing their expertise and that would be great, but we don’t have any place for those chefs to cook. And you can have kids developing recipes from scratch with dark green leafy vegetables and that’s wonderful, but where are these recipes going to be cooked if there is no kitchen?”

As I’ve written about before (most recently in a Houston Chronicle op-ed), here in Houston ISD we have one of the nation’s most advanced central kitchens for the preparation of school food:  a state-of-the-art, $51 million facility that takes up 15-acres, with 95,000 square feet devoted to baking, “cook/chill” and cold food preparation, as well as football-field-sized freezer and dry storage areas.  (But whether the kitchen’s capabilities are being used to their best advantage is another question entirely.)

So I confess I’d given little thought at the time to the fact that many schools around the country not only lack my district’s extraordinary resources, but literally have no place to do anything more than reheat frozen, processed foods.

I’m remembering all this now because Dana recently sent me a photo from one of San Francisco USD’s largest elementary schools.  Take a look at the school’s “kitchen:”

If we ever want schools to prepare healthful, “scratch-cooked” school food, not only will schools need extra funding to buy the fresh, whole raw materials and hire the labor needed to prepare them, but there is also the very real issue of infrastructure.  As a retired Air Force General from Mission Readiness mentioned in my interview with him last year:

Since 2009, Congress has appropriated $125 million for equipment upgrades. During that time period, there were more than $600 million in grant requests for this need.

Could there be a better illustration of that unfulfilled need than the picture above?

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Karen Luna May 1, 2012 at 9:56 am

That is a great example of what we are up against. Also trying to prepare food for 650 kids in a kitchen that was designed in 1950 for 300 kids. In low income areas, most of our kitchens are too small and falling apart. That equipment grant didn’t go far. We received 4 pieces out of the 40 that we requested

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pink slimer May 2, 2012 at 7:18 am

The fact that those kitchens are sitting empty is what is wrong with our country,

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Bettina Elias Siegel May 2, 2012 at 8:56 am

Pink slimer: That kitchen is in use, just inadequate.

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Chris May 1, 2012 at 11:04 am

We have a full on home ec kitchen at our school- with three complete kitchens in it- and it is not used as there is no room in the budget for a home ec teacher… grrrr

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Bettina Elias Siegel May 1, 2012 at 2:25 pm

If you’ve posted a comment and don’t see it appear after a reasonable time, the comment is in violation of The Lunch Tray’s comments policy. No comment is ever censored for expressing an opposing view; comments which include personal attacks, ugly language (or even just a needling, snide tone) will always be censored. Some might object to this moderation policy as too strict, but I am deeply committed to keeping TLT a pleasant, safe space for all. If I receive several comments in violation of the policy from a single commenter, all future comments originating from that IP address will automatically be placed in my blog’s spam filter and I won’t see them for moderation. If you care to re-write and re-submit your comment in light of the policy, please do. As noted above, no comment will ever be censored based on the opinion it expresses.

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Nina Simonds May 1, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Often even trying to help is an uphill battle. I have had repeated conversations and pleaded with our mayor in Salem ( who is a mother herself) where I live to help volunteer, write grants, and work on upgrading the school lunch program, and even though she cares, it is not a priority – especially when budgets are tight for good teachers and other necessary school supplies.

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peter gorman May 2, 2012 at 4:56 pm

We need a new chefs/cooks in schools who want to make a difference. It takes a lot of faith in educating our faculty, students and parents. I reeducated myself and am still learning. It can be done.

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Susan May 9, 2012 at 6:04 am

Congress and the USDA also need to help systems which do NOT have high free and reduced price eligibility. I realize it’s not popular to “give” money to school nutrition programs which are in affluent systems, but those systems are struggling for funding more than systems with high free and reduced price.

Most people don’t realize the number of grants and opportunities which are directed at only 50% or higher free/reduced price systems. I apply, but know that my system isn’t even going to be considered. We desperately need to replace cold holding units and a low free/reduced price system may get a mixer. At least let us compete fairly.

Paid status meals are reimbursed at 0.26 per meal vs. free meals reimbursed at 2.76. Imagine if you were trying to create a budget which allows for equipment replacement knowing that 80% of your population is going to be reimbursed at 0.26. Yes, I know, the paying customers must pick up their fair share (Paid Meal Equity provision), but every time you raise prices, you lose participation — we need the Congress’ and the USDA’s help to get the equipment and infrastructure up to par, then they can blame us.

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