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No more nuggets? School lunches go from farm to table — for some

CONCORD, Calif. (AP) — While her high school fine-dining chef was offering samples of his latest recipes, Anahi Nava Flores offered her critique of a baguette sandwich with Toscano salami, organic Monterey Jack, arugula, and scratched basil spread: “That pesto aioli is good! ”

Classmate Kentaro Turner devoured pastrami melted on sourdough and switched to free-range chicken cooked in chipotle broth with Spanish-style rice. “It’s all delicious!”

These are not words commonly uttered in school cafeterias.

The food served in the suburban San Francisco school system, Mount Diablo Unified, reflects a trend away from reheated meals in bulk. The lunch menus are filled with California-grown fruits and vegetables, grass-fed meats, and recipes that defy the stereotype of inedible school food.
Among American schoolchildren, these students are in the fortunate minority. Making fresh meals requires significant investment and, in many areas, an overhaul of how school kitchens have operated over decades. Inflation and supply chain disruptions have made it even more difficult for school nutrition managers, leading to widening gaps in access to affordable, high-quality food.
Moreover, federal funds to increase lunch budgets have decreased. The government last year ended a pandemic-era program that provided free school meals to all. A few states, such as California, have paid to keep meals free for all students, but most states are back to charging all but the most needy children.
Financial increases from the California state government made it possible for Mount Diablo to purchase the freshest local ingredients and hire a chef, Josh Gjersand, a veteran of Michelin-starred restaurants. Local farms, bakeries, creameries, and poachers now supply most of the ingredients for the district, which serves 30,000 students from affluent and low-income communities east of San Francisco.
On a recent January morning, student taste-testers were sampling Gjersand’s latest creation. His daily specials ranged from spare barbecue ribs to fresh red snapper on a whole grain brioche bun.
“I love the idea of ​​better food for students,” said Gersand, who left restaurants during the pandemic, when the wagyu, beef and caviar crowd lost its luster. “School cafes should look like restaurants, not fast food chains.”
School systems elsewhere can only dream of such displays.
“Financially, we’re dying right now,” said Patty Belpre, director of nutrition for the Scottsdale Unified School District in Arizona. Students charge $2.85 per lunch, but that no longer comes close to covering the cost of the district.
She said the shortage of staff makes it impossible to cook more food from scratch. The school relies on mass production of food which is delivered and then reheated. Pizza: “I’m done. You just bake it.” Spicy Chicken Sandwich: “You heat it up and put it on a bun.” Corn Dogs: “You just have to roll it up,” she said.
Some students give positive feedback about the food. “I eat spicy chicken every day,” said Hunter Kimble, a sixth-grade student at Tonalea Middle School, where nearly 80% of students still qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Grade 8 student Araceli Canales is even more important. The school offers an orange chicken that she says makes her cringe. “The meat is like a different color,” she said. On our last lunchtime, Araceli opted for the Chicken Caesar Salad, noting that the croutons were nice and firm. “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 power in the trash.
Not many schools can afford gourmet offerings like Mount Diablo’s, which also take advantage of California’s year-round growing season. But School Nutrition Association spokeswoman Diane Pratt-Hefner said school menus in several places have improved in the past decade, with newer ingredients and more ethnic dishes.
But the pandemic has created new obstacles.
In a national survey of 1,230 school nutrition managers, nearly all said rising costs of food and supplies were their biggest challenge this year. More than 90% said they are facing a supply chain and staff shortage.
The Nutrition Society survey also found high levels of student lunch debt in schools that reverted to charging for meals. The association urges Congress to resume free breakfasts and lunches across the country.
“This is the worst and fastest build-up of debt I’ve seen in 12 years with school feeding,” said Angela Ricci, director of nutrition for the Roseville and St. Anthony-New Brighton districts in Minnesota, which serves about 9,400 students. They don’t turn away a hungry child, but this year’s school meal debt is over $90,000, at a rate of over $1,000 a day.
Many school nutrition directors say that making food from scratch is not only healthier, it’s cheaper.
But this is only possible when schools have kitchens. The national shift away from school kitchens began in the 1980s, ushering in an era of mass production of processed school foods. Takeaways offered by foodservice companies mean that schools can get rid of full-time cafeteria and kitchen staff.
“If you don’t have a kitchen to chop things up, there’s not much you can do with fresh vegetables,” said Nina Ishikawa, executive director of the Berkeley Food Institute, part of a team evaluating a farm-to-school incubator in California. Grant. California’s investment was described as undoing previous damage.
In 2021, California has committed to spending $650 million annually to supplement federal meal payments — money for food, staff, new equipment and other upgrades. In addition, hundreds of millions of dollars are available for kitchen infrastructure and schools that cook from scratch and buy from California farmers.

In California’s rural Modoc 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 they are not usually fresh. “I try not to eat canned vegetables more than twice a week,” said Jessica Boal, director of nutrition for the 840-student district.
The district’s five schools lack functional kitchens, so their staff spends half the day unloading shipments of pre-processed foods. But Boal is excited about change on the horizon. The district recently applied for government grants to put new kitchens in every school and bring in more produce.
At Mount Diablo High School, there’s still hot dogs and hamburgers, but the meat is grass-fed.
“I haven’t served crispy chicken nuggets here in two years. And the kids don’t miss it,” said Dominic Macchi, who has reimagined meals for the region since becoming director of nutrition five years ago.
The school’s students, 96% of whom belong to a racial or ethnic minority, say taking an interest in good food sends a message of respect.
The school is located in a neighborhood of fast food malls. But within its walls, “this food makes me feel more important. It makes you feel good about not eating discarded food,” said Kehlani Kravanas, 16.
Anahi Nava Flores, 17, said the meals instill a sense of self-worth. “When you go to a high-end restaurant, you come 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. AP is solely responsible for all content.