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Mystery Meat Goes Gourmet at Wheatland High



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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, September 03, 2010

 

** If your browser doesn't support Flash, you can listen to this report by clicking on the link at the right under "Download The Audio." **

Kuulei Moreno is wearing a black T-shirt with a four-letter word -- Chef.

This is chef's house. So, they show respect when they come into chef's house

OK, chef's house is a linoleum lunch room with folding tables and menus scrawled in magic marker. And chef's house is full of loud but respectful kids.   
 
Warm the buns in now. Yes chef! Turn them over so you can see that they're toasted. Yes, chef! We're a team, right guys?
 
Moreno is no lunch lady. She's part chef, part coach, and she's turned this lunchroom pro.
 
We run our cafeteria like a restaurant. We have to make the customer happy. The kids are our customers and they have to like it.
 
Moreno has four kids of her own and knows what most kids don't like. Meatloaf, warmed-over hamburgers and baked French fries unless there's chili and cheese on top. This being the first day of school, she's tasting everything.
 
These are our new teriyaki chicken sandwiches. Hold on, let me make sure that's done. Hey, that's crazy good. They're going to love that.
 
Kuulei Moreno never planned to run a school cafeteria. She's a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. But she's also a graduate of, yes, Wheatland High. Deaths in her family brought her home. She was unsure of her future, so, six years ago she took the low-paying job to run her alma mater's lunch room.
 
The first time we were going to make fresh potatoes I thought we were going to have a riot in the kitchen because they had to peel potatoes. And that wasn't happening. And I said, yeah, it IS happening. So, it was a fight all the way.
 
The fight was to feed 800 students fresh food. The ill-equipped kitchen she inherited couldn't do that. Now, KitchenAid mixers line up like soldiers on a counter. There's a 12-burner stove, industrial refrigerators, convection ovens. How did Moreno get the district to give her the money?
 
I fed them. I bribed them, I fed them as much as I could.
 
And used logic.
 
I said, you know if we have a charbroiler, we can cook the burgers a lot more healthier because you don't want to bake them in their own grease. We've just got a good administration that supports the program.
 
Dr. Vic Ramos is district superintendant and the high school's principal.
 
Dr. Ramos: We have a student body just like any school that votes with their feet. If the food's good, they come in and eat, and if food isn't, they don't come in, and we've noticed a marked increase in the amount of student lunches served here.
 
The more students eat the school lunch, the more federal dollars flow Wheatland's way.
 
KITCHEN SOUNDS
 
Moreno may have her dream kitchen, but she still cooks on a budget. Relying on free US commodities is no barrier to cooking well. The best example is pizza. The crust is made daily from commodity flour.  And then there's the sauce.
 
So we use tomato sauce, tomato paste and diced tomatoes…
 
EC: All commodities
 
And it's got commodity carrots that we chop up, fresh garlic and some fresh basil that my student brings in. And we cook it down…for hours
 
[BELL, STUDENTS COME IN]
 
The students swarm the serving line in a first-day-of-school rush. Moreno wears a whistle around her neck in case the noise level gets any louder. Here comes the sell.
 
KM: We got turkey tacos. We got bbq turkey hoagies. We got homemade chili with nachos. And….come here. Turkey wrap with a cole slaw with Fuji apples and a Meyer yogurt lemon sauce, non-fat.
 
A senior named Norma is in the courtyard eating pizza so tomatoey it looks like a wedge of straight Vitaman C. She knows it's made from scratch. And she's grateful.
 
Norma Herrario: I think it's really cool, 'cause they, like, put all their time and effort into it. I'll spread the word.
 
That's the kind of word of mouth Moreno is hoping for. She says good food makes good students.
 
They're our children. And we should treat them like these are the guys who are going to be running our country, sooner or later. We need to take care of them now.

 

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