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Building a Better Cookie

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By Elaine Corn

Just South of Sacramento is one of largest school districts in California. Elk Grove Unified School District serves up a food education curriculum for kindergarten through sixth grade students. Every elementary school in the district has been recognized with a US Healthier Schools award by the First Lady's Let's Move campaign. And Elk Grove Unified has proved that nutrition doesn't need to suffer with when preparing meals in mass quantities. 

How does it work? Elaine Corn takes us on a tour of the busy Central Kitchen to see where the district prepares more than 8 million meals a year.  And she met with students in the classroom and the lunchroom of David Reese Elementary School to find out what they understand about healthy eating.

A fourth-grader squeezes out the contents of a packet of tartar sauce and starts eating this strange new dish - fish sticks. When asked why she chose fish sticks for lunch, she says: "Because I've never tried fish sticks with tar, and I never tasted tar. Tar sauce." She takes a bite, and likes it. "It's good," she says.

Kids make split-second choices about what to grab in the lunch line. They speed-read signs over each entrée. "Fish sticks!" One sign says. It blares in Magic Marker: "Protein! Grain!" surrounded by hand-drawn stars.

Each shift of nearly 200 students must get through this line in 90 seconds. A cashier checks the trays. If a child takes "too many fruits, she'll say to put one back. Not enough grain, exchange an entrée," she tells a hungry customer.

Another student explains how lunch choices are made: "When I go through the line I see all the food there is, so just get it, then I go through it and get the food I want."

Free, or Paid? Nobody Knows

An Elk Grove school lunch costs $2.50. Fifty-three percent of the kids in this district come from families with low incomes, so they're eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. No matter, the food selection's the same. No one knows who's eating free or who pays for lunch.

Fourth-grader Pedro picks up a burger on a benign beige bun that was made from scratch with whole wheat flour. His lunch includes a plum, milk and a chocolate chip cookie. When asked his opinion of healthy food, he replies: "It helps your body grow and be strong."

Lunch would be more nutritious if every child finished every bite, but with only 20 minutes in the lunchroom, it's a race to eat everything on the tray while talking with friends, unwrapping all the pizzas and condiment packets and the rest of the busy-ness at the table.

A third grade boy named X'zarian says the food at school is better than the food he gets at home. His lunch tray includes a pear, juice, milk, cucumbers, plum and a sandwich. X'zarian guesses it's a chicken sandwich, but it's actually turkey - commodity turkey.

X'zarian not only eats breakfast and lunch at David Reese Elementary school, but he also gets a supper snack during an after-school program. He is far from finishing his lunch, but time's running out and it's nearly time to go outdoors for recess. In minutes, the fifth and sixth graders will be blasting through to doors for their lunchtime.

"Now's the time to finish eating. We'll be dumping trays in about three minutes. No talking."- Lunchroom monitor at David Reese Elementary School

"Three, two, one, zero!" Silent lunch has begun, the lunchroom monitor instructs the students: "Now's the time to finish eating. We'll be dumping trays in about three minutes. No talking."

Anything students don't finish goes in the trash - whole pears, untouched sandwiches, still-sealed packages of kid carrots, entire cartons of milk. To inspire a clean-plate-club mentality, principal Jenifer Avery initiated Silent Lunch.  "It's actually almost five minutes of quiet time at the end of their 20-minute lunch time, so they have an opportunity to really finish eating. It allows them to focus on finishing their food and having enough to eat that day," Avery says.

Food Processing Center a Hive of Activity

An industrial conveyor machine is clacking away in the Elk Grove Unified School District Food Processing Center in South Sacramento. Hair- netted workers fill compartments in plastic snack containers moving down the belt.

"When this line is moving faster, when we go up in speed, it is very difficult to keep up. That is not an easy job," says Michelle Drake, director of food and nutrition services for the district.

Building a Better Cookie 3

Michelle Drake

"We find that if a child has to peel an orange, they won't necessarily eat it," she says. "But when it's already cut for them, they enjoy eating it, like a smile, they put it over their teeth and eat the actual flesh of the product." - Michelle Drake, director of food and nutrition services

Drake has a business degree and a background in the restaurant industry. She said staff for the processing center is carefully hired. They look for people with experience with large food equipment and the ability to work fast. Today, oranges are being sectioned by a dangerously sharp wedging machine. "We find that if a child has to peel an orange, they won't necessarily eat it," she says. "But when it's already cut for them, they enjoy eating it, like a smile, they put it over their teeth and eat the actual flesh of the product."

None of the Elk Grove district's 60 schools are equipped with fully functioning kitchens, so this loud facility provides meals for 61,000 students every school day. Food is prepped, mixed, bagged and packed for transport. It's wheeled to a loading dockk, where pallets are strapped down in six refrigerated vans that deliver meals to every school the night before it's they're served.

Marty Rome's title is "food production lead," and he wears a black chef coat. He was trained at the California Culinary Academy and worked for Marriott. During his 19 years at the Elk Grove food service, Rome has had to adapt to constant change. "It's more healthy," he says, "As 10 years ago it wasn't a big focus. We have a lot more lower fats, lower sodiums."

Rome supervises a kitchen where recipes are important not only for federally mandated nutrition requirements, but because much of what Elk Grove students eat is made from scratch. But not like you make at home. "Like taco meat," Rome says, "That'll be about 5,000 portions for one batch."

The kitchen produces about 6 million lunches a year. Add in the breakfasts, snacks and - in some high-needs areas, suppers - and it's 8.5 million meals a year. A warehouse the size of The Home Depot stores dry goods. There's a staff of 50, soup cauldrons the size of hot tubs and bakery mixers big enough to churn cement.

15,000 Chocolate Chip Cookies, With a Secret Ingredient

The aroma of sweet dough means chocolate chip cookies are in the oven. Rome calls them SB-12 Cookies, named for the Senate Bill that established California's school nutrition standards in 2007. "We're listening to what's called a cookie depositor," Rome says. "This is pre-weighing each cookie that's coming out. High school (cookies) would be a different weight than the elementary (cookies)."

The kitchen can produce 15,000 SB-12 chocolate chip cookies a day. Rome says it's cheaper to make them on-site than pay a vendor. "I probably had 10 failures before I got it correct," he says about his effort to perfect the recipe.

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Marty Rome

Rome says he needed a cookie with kid approval and appropriate nutritional math - 35 percent of the calories from fat; 35 percent sugar by weight; 175 calories for elementary school; and 250 calories for middle and high school. He insisted on real chocolate - after all, chocolate has antioxidants - but the amount had to be just right. "If I put too many (chocolate chips), then it goes over the saturated fats," he says.

Inspired by new guidelines that call for more whole grains, the SB-12s are made totally with whole wheat flour. Rome's secret ingredient to mask the whole wheat taste is applesauce. "We've taken out all the bad ingredients. We put only the good ones in."

Massive Shopping Lists And Complex Menu Planning

The Elk Grove district is the fifth largest in California, with an annual food program budget of $23 million. Shopping, however, isn't as simple as buying in bulk at a warehouse store. The program is a ballet of undulating food costs, meeting federal nutritional guidelines, making menus, cooking food, serving students and collecting government reimbursement.

But what sets Elk Grove's system apart and makes it an award-winning program is that first-  and third- graders are the arbiters of taste.

"They're going to be real excited because we're bringing chicken nuggets back. It's whole grain breast meat," says Bobbi Waybright, buyer for all the food served in the district.

"They're going to be real excited because we're bringing chicken nuggets back. It's whole grain breast meat," - Bobbi Waybright, food buyer, Elk Grove Unified School District

She makes out huge grocery lists. In her line of work, they're called "bids," or "purchase orders," and distributors and manufacturers covet winning a contract with Elk Grove. It's big money. "They come to us, constantly calling us and saying 'I want to get on your bidder's list and I want to bring you samples,'" Waybright says about the companies trying to land her business. "Our volume is large enough where some manufacturers actually consider tweaking their formulas to meet our needs."

Waybright sends USDA commodity meat to a processors who that prepares it according to district specifications. She ticks off unimaginable numbers: "We're sending just shy of 100,000 pounds of beef to a processor which was going to be made into mini-cheeseburgers and beef patties; 36,000 pounds of chicken to have chicken breast patties or popcorn chicken."

This is the year of guideline glitches, according to Drake. She said the students love the district's bean burrito, which is a good vegetarian option. But the burritos ordered in January no longer meet the federal guidelines. "Because of the new regulations, the burrito that we have been serving doesn't fit the specs because of too much bread grain," she says.

Planning Menus Like Working A Giant Puzzle

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Ann Gaffney

Registered dietitian Ann Gaffney designs the menus for the district. Her desk is piled with calendar pages, each filled with Post-It notes. Each note has a short menu written in pencil. "We shuffle it all around," she says of the menu planning process. "That's why I've come to this Post-It note system so I can keep moving it around. It looks like a jigsaw puzzle. It IS a bit like a puzzle to make sure we meet all the requirements and still have a meal a child wants to eat."

The district's menus began their upgrade about 18 years ago on  uses the California SHAPE program - that stands for "Shaping Health As Partners in Education." Gaffney has been with the Elk Grove food program since the SHAPE program started. Her for about 18 years, and her work has won awards and landed Elk Grove's school lunch program on First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" website.

Gaffney explains that up until July 1, the system was nutrient-based. "We looked at the nutrition involved in the foods, sort of the science behind it. Did they get enough calcium? Did they get enough protein," she says. Now the program is component-based by the week. There's a meeat component, or a meat alternative like beans or cheese. New regulations require Gaffney to schedule nine servings of grains a week.

"Since we have five days in a week, I can't just do two grains every day because that's going to put me at 10, and I'd be over by a grain," she says. "I know it sounds ridiculous, but that's the system we're working with."

And there's also the color-coded fruit and vegetable component. "You have to have something from the orange-red category, you have to have a dark green vegetable, you need to have a starchy vegetable and then they have another group called 'The Other,'" Gaffney says.

Food Immersion Program Gets Students Involved

Elk Grove has designed a food immersion program that gives kids a voice in the lunchroom and the classroom. "One reason why students - our students - are more likely to take our foods is because they've had input on what's going to go on the school lunch menu," she says.

Third-grade teacher Patty Bright brought zucchini from her home garden to school today. It's been cut into sticks for each student to examine. "We're going to explore our zucchini before we taste it," she tells her class. "We have a little chart. The first column of the chart says…"

"Sense!" the class replies.

"Because we have five senses," chants students and teacher in unison.

After the raw zucchini is touched, smelled and tasted, it's steamed in a microwave oven. Bright transforms the zucchini with a simple recipe using lemon and Parmesan cheese. The class likes the result. "Does it taste the same as the raw zucchini did?"

"No!" the class shouts.

Some of the students in the class didn't know zucchini before today. But they had to analyze it and try it. Most liked it. Some threw it away. What matters is that they were introduced to zucchini. For Drake, all the elements of the district's food offerings complete a circle, particularly when she opens up the big commissary kitchen for student tours.

"They see the trucks. They see how it goes. How the food comes in. How it's prepared," Drake says. "When they go back to school and they eat it, they go, 'oh wow, I see how it all comes together.' I think when they see how it's made, they are grateful. They do understand that there was love that went into it."

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