New-trition on a School Lunch Tray: What Would Julia Say?

Two things have been top of my mind recently: First, as students head back-to-school, USDA’s new guidelines for school meals have begun to “hit the trays” in cafeterias nationwide. Secondly, foodies everywhere have been celebrating the 100th birthday of Julia Child’s with a veritable banquet of of quotes, tributes and reminiscences.

While I know that Julia Child commented on fast food (in fact, we agree that In-N-Out Burger is our favorite chain), I cannot find any specific opinions she expressed about school lunch. Perhaps that’s because national attention was just beginning to focus on school food when she passed away in 2004. However, based on several of her famous quotes, I have decided that Julia Child would be quite pleased with current school food trends – and would admire the work of my favorite school nutrition heroes as well.

You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients. This simple salad from the Power-Up Cafe at Cypress-Fairbanks ISD just outside Houston, Texas, elegantly illustrates the trend toward fresh ingredients in schools. The staff included Romaine lettuce, carrots, tomatoes, jicama and chickpeas (tossed in a chili lime seasoning) to meet the new guidelines for greater vegetable variety on school lunch trays. Now, all they need is a name for the salad; so far my vote is with Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. I wonder what Julia would have called it – besides gorgeous!

How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex? I know that Julia would have loved Peggy Lawrence, Director of Food Services in Rockdale, Georgia (and the 2012 Georgia SNA Director of the Year). In her district of 16,000 students, many whole grain bread products are baked in each school’s kitchen. Peggy knows that the aroma of made-from-scratch, no-Kleenex-here cinnamon and sandwich rolls brings students and staff into the cafeteria for freshly baked, whole grain goodness. It also helps her menus exceed the new standards for half of all grains products to be whole grain this year.

Peggy and Julia would certainly agree that “… no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” That’s why Peggy and other savvy directors spend plenty of training time – in groups and one-on-one – to insure that the best possible products are served in their schools. From coast-to-coast, school nutrition professionals have been upgrading their culinary skills to roll out the complex USDA Nutrition Standards for School Meals, with colorful eye-appleaing menus and the nutrient-richness that children need – minus the excess fat, sodium and sugar that they can do without.

This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook – try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun! School nutrition professionals have a very important – and very tough – job. They have to meet the new federal standards on minimal budgets (often about $1.00 per lunch for food). They have to satisfy the taste buds of a generation that has grown up on fast food, chicken fingers and pizza. They have to serve hundreds (or even thousands) of students in crowded cafeterias quickly and efficiently. They face criticism from all sides – everyone from principals and parents to TV chefs and teachers thinks they know more about school meals that people who actually prepare and serve them.

And yet, like these smiling professionals at an August 16th back-to-school training in Provo, Utah, they are eager to learn new skills and proud to serve children the safest, most nutritious, best tasting meals possible. They may be a tiny bit fearful about the increased scrutiny that the new lunch guidelines will bring, but I can guarantee you that they know how to have fun! I believe that Julia Child would indeed be proud of these professionals who are “Moving in the Future” and ready to help a generation become fit, healthy, and ready to succeed!

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