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More nuggets? School lunch is farm-to-table – for some

CONCORD, Calif. (AP) — As his high school’s gourmet chef served samples of his new recipes, Anahi Nava Flores slammed him for a baguette sandwich with Toscano salami, organic Monterey Jack, arugula and a homemade basil spread: “This pesto aioli is good!”

Classmate Kentaro Turner devoured a deli-style pastrami fudge on sourdough and moved on to free-range chicken simmered in chipotle broth with Spanish rice. “Everything is delicious!”

These are not words typically spoken in school canteens.

The food served in the suburban San Francisco school system, Mount Diablo Unified, reflects a trend away from mass-produced reheated meals. Its lunch menus are filled with California-grown fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats, and recipes that challenge the stereotype of inedible school food.

Among American schoolchildren, these students are among the lucky minority. Preparing fresh meals requires significant investment and, in many areas, an overhaul of how school kitchens have operated for decades. Inflation and supply chain disruptions have only made it more difficult for school nutrition directors, widening gaps in access to affordable, high-quality food.

In addition, federal money to increase meal budgets has dwindled. Last year, the government ended a pandemic-era scheme offering free school meals to all. A few states, like California, have paid to keep meals free for all students, but most states have resumed charging all but the most needy children for meals.

Funding increases from the California state government allowed Mount Diablo to purchase fresher local ingredients and hire chef Josh Gjersand, a veteran Michelin-starred restauranter. Local farms, bakers, creameries and fishers now provide most of the ingredients for the district, which serves 30,000 students from wealthy and low-income communities east of San Francisco.

On a recent morning in January, student testers were sampling Gjersand’s latest creations. Her daily specials range from barbecued ribs to fresh red snapper on a whole grain brioche bun.

“I love the idea of ​​serving better food to students,” said Gjersand, who quit restaurants during the pandemic when serving crowds of wagyu beef and caviar lost its luster. “School cafeterias should look like restaurants, not fast food chains.”

School systems elsewhere can only dream of such offerings.

“Financially, we’re dying right now,” said Patti Bilbrey, director of nutrition for the Scottsdale Unified School District in Arizona. It charges students $2.85 per lunch, but that no longer covers district costs.

A staff shortage makes it impossible to cook more food from scratch, she said. The school relies on mass-produced food that is delivered and then reheated. Pizza: “It’s done; you just cooked it. The Spicy Chicken Sandwich: “You heat it up and put it on a bun.” Corn Dogs: “You just pack it up,” she said.

Some students give positive reviews to the food. “I eat spicy chicken every day. It’s my favorite,” said Hunter Kimble, a sixth-grade student at Tonalea Middle School, where nearly 80 percent of students still qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Eighth-grade student Araceli Canales is more critical. The school serves an orange chicken which she says makes her cringe. “Meat is like a different color,” she said. At a recent lunch, Araceli chose a chicken Caesar salad, noting that the croutons were bland and tough. “The chicken tastes good, but I want them to cook it longer and add more seasoning.” When the bell rang, she threw most of her salad in the trash.

Few schools can afford gourmet offerings like Mount Diablo’s, which also benefits from California’s year-round growing season. But school menus at several locations have improved over the past decade, with fresher ingredients and more ethnic dishes, said School Nutrition Association spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Heavner.

However, the pandemic has created new obstacles.

In a national survey of 1,230 school nutrition directors, nearly all said rising food and supply costs were their biggest challenge this year. More than 90% said they were facing supply chain and staffing shortages.

The nutrition association’s survey also found rising levels of student meal debt at schools that have started charging for meals again. The association urges Congress to resume free breakfast and lunch nationwide.

“This is the worst and fastest accumulation of debt I have seen in my 12 years of school nutrition,” said Angela Richey, director of nutrition for the Roseville and St Anthony-New Brighton school districts in Minnesota, which serve approximately 9,400 students. They’re not turning away a starving child, but this year’s school lunch debt has topped $90,000, growing at a rate of more than $1,000 a day.

Making food from scratch isn’t just healthier, it’s cheaper, say many school nutrition directors.

But this is only possible when schools have kitchens. A national shift away from school kitchens began in the 1980s, which ushered in an era of processed, mass-produced school foods. Pre-prepared meals delivered by catering companies have allowed schools to cut cafeteria staff and full-time kitchens.

“If you don’t have a kitchen to chop things up, there’s not much you can do with fresh vegetables,” said Nina Ichikawa, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, who is part of a team evaluating an incubator. Californian from farm to school. grant. She describes California’s investments as undoing past damage.

In 2021, California pledged to spend $650 million a year to supplement federal meal reimbursements — money for food, staff, new equipment and other improvements. Additionally, hundreds of millions of dollars are available for kitchen infrastructure and for schools cooking from scratch and buying from California farmers.

In the Modoc, California Unified School District near the Oregon border, lunch menus reflect what the state is trying to change: a rotation of hot dogs, chicken nuggets, pizza and burgers. There are vegetables, as required by federal guidelines, but generally not fresh. “I try not to make canned vegetables more than twice a week,” said Jessica Boal, director of nutrition for the 840-student district.

The district’s five schools lack functioning kitchens, so its staff spends half the day unpacking deliveries of prepared and processed meals. But Boal is excited about the change on the horizon. The district recently applied for state grants to install new kitchens in each school and bring in more produce.

At Mount Diablo High School, there are still hot dogs and hamburgers, but the meats are grass-fed.

“I haven’t served a chicken nugget here in two years. And the kids don’t miss it,” said Dominic Machi, who has reinvented meals for the district since becoming director of nutrition five years ago.

Students at the school, 96% of whom are from a racial or ethnic minority, say the attention to quality food sends a message of respect.

The school is in an area of ​​fast food malls. But inside its walls, “this food makes me feel more important. It feels good not to eat junk food,” said 16-year-old Kahlanii Cravanas.

Anahi Nava Flores, 17, said meals instill a sense of self-worth. “When you go to a high-end restaurant, you go home feeling good about life. That’s what this food does.

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Cheyanne Mumphrey contributed reporting from Scottsdale, Arizona.

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The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.