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Tales from a D.C. School Kitchen: Part Two

January 20th, 2010 · 10 Comments · Posted in kids, Tales

Chronicling a week behind the food line

Chronicling a week behind the food line

I recently spent a week in the kitchen at H.D. Cooke Elementary School here in the District of Columbia observing how food is prepared. This is the second in a six-part series of posts about what I saw. The first post is here.

Tuesday morning I arrived in the kitchen at H.D. Cooke Elementary School and was surprised to find scrambled eggs on the steam table. How is that, I wondered, when so much of the food served to students starts in the freezer? I had not seen any fresh eggs–or even any egg products–anywhere in my travels around the kitchen. Plus, there is no cooktop in the school kitchen, only a convection oven and a steamer, meaning nowhere to scramble eggs.

I had a lot to learn about just how much our industrial food system can do with modern technology to eliminate the work we normally associate with food preparation, as well as the distance between the farms where food is grown and the people who eat it. In fact, the eggs had been cooked in a factory in Minnesota, then shipped frozen in six-pound plastic bags to the District of Columbia. Getting them to the breakfast line where they could be served to the approximately 150 students who participate in the school’s breakfast program was a simple matter of dumping the frozen eggs out of their bags and into stainless pans, then heating them in the kitchen’s commercial steamer.

The “scrambled” eggs come out looking more like pale yellow cottage cheese. According to the nutrition label on the box from Michael Foods in Minnetonka, Minnesota, they are made with “whole eggs, skim milk, soybean oil, modified corn starch, xanthan gum, liquid pepper extract, citric acid, natural and artifical butter flavor, lipolized butter oil, medium chain triglycerides, natural and artificial flavors.”

Kitchen manager Tiffany Whittington likes to stir cheddar cheese–pre-shredded by Land O Lakes in five-pound bags–into the scrambled eggs to boost the flavor quotient.

It’s not just scrambled eggs that seem to defy the usual laws of culinary physics. I noticed that the school sometimes serves egg salad. Being a fan of egg salad myself (I use a convoluted method for cooking the eggs so that they peel easily and maintain a pristine yolk), I asked Whittington where she got the hard-boiled eggs to make it. “Oh, the eggs come frozen, already diced,” she said with a wave of her hand. She just adds mayonnaise and seasonings to finish them off.

Recently I spent a week in the H.D. Cooke kitchen to observe how food is prepared. The company contracted to provide food for D.C. Public Schools, Chartwells-Thompson, part of a huge, international food service conglomerate called Compass Group, this year decided to eliminate pre-cooked, pre-packaged warmup meals from the school routine and introduce something they call “fresh cooked,” meaning meals prepared on-site in school kitchens. (The city’s charter schools contract independently for food service, usually with small catering companies.)

What I quickly learned is that “fresh cooked” does not mean “from scratch” or “fresh ingredients.” Indeed, most meals at H.D. Cooke are constructed around foods that have been heavily processed and reconstituted in distant factories, then shipped pre-cooked and frozen. Meal components have been industrially designed to require the least amount of time and minimal skill to prepare. It’s all part of an institutionalized effort to hold down costs–especially labor costs, which constitute half the cost of school food service–and squeeze school meals into tight local food budgets that hinge on subsidy payments from the federal government.

The result for a food manager such as Whittington is a kind of cook-by-numbers scheme that leans more toward kitchen administration than haute cuisine.

Whittington grew up in far Southeast Washington. After graduating from Ballou High School, she enrolled in a course with ServSafe, a national company that specializes in food service training and certification testing. She got a food service job in D.C. schools in 2001, and now supervises the work of two assistants who help assemble the food, serve it at the food line and maintain the kitchen and its equipment in immaculately clean condition.

Whittington keeps track of all the food, as well as a careful count of all the students who come through the food line. The numbers are critically important: for each student who qualifies, lunch is worth a $2.68 payment from the U.S. Deparmtment of Agriculture. Those federal payments cover most of the cost of food served in schools, or nearly half the total cost of food service operations. Local government picks up the rest.

Previously, meals for D.C. public schools were made in an off-site food factory and delivered to the schools in individual plastic containers, like airline food. When Chartwells switched to “fresh cooked,” it gave Whittington a recipe book for the new foods she would be serving. The book, a three-ring binder, contains dozens and dozens of single-page instructions for making large quantities of breakfast and lunch entrees, various side dishes and salads.There’s breakfast quesadilla, sweet and sour chicken, salisbury steak, Buffalo chicken wrap, “Big Daddy’s” cheese pizza, “fiesta rice,” glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, cole slaw, to name a few.

Most of the menu items consist of only a couple ingredients, and perhaps a three-step process for getting them to the steam table. For instance, lunch on Thursday was “Asian noodles” and “beef teriyaki bites.” The noodles were simply dry spaghetti pasta cooked in a steamer, then tossed with Kikkoman’s teriyaki sauce. The beef bites are small patties pre-cooked with an Asian-flavored glaze, imprinted with  faux grill marks, then frozen by Pierre Foods in Cincinnati, Ohio. From their frozen state, they only need five minutes reheating in a 350-degree oven.

Sometimes the recipes are so simple that Whittington can put out breakfast for the entire school by herself. For breakfast grits, for instance, she heats a large pan of water to near boiling in the steamer, then stirs in Quaker “5-minute” grits from a box. While I watch her stir, I try to make conversation by talking about different styles of grits. Being from Chicago, I had never seen grits until I confronted them in the cafeteria at what was then the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, where I had a part-time job in college. Some people, I tell Whittington, like to cook their grits a long time from whole grains. Whittington looks at me with a quizical expression: She says she has not heard of long-cooked grits.

She finishes the instant grits by stirring in shredded cheddar cheese, which seems to be the go-to ingredient for flavor in the H.D. Cooke kitchen.

On Thursdays, Whittington sits down with her recipe book and the menu for the week ahead–the same menu for all of the school system’s elementary schools–sent via e-mail from Chartwells. After calculating the quantities of ingredients she needs, she fills out an electronic order form and sends it back to Chartwells. If all goes well, her order will be delivered the following Tuesday. The week I was there, there had been no delivery the previous Tuesday. Whittington did not know why, but it blew a huge hole in the published menu. Whittington simply improvised using the ingredients she had on hand.

One day the menu called for “Macho Nachos,” with turkey meat, corn chips and cheese sauce. Whittington had to substitute “beef crumbles” for the turkey meat, and she didn’t have the chips. I asked her why she couldn’t just call Chartwells and ask for an emergency delivery. She shook her head. “They would just have to find a school that has extra.” But not long afterwards she was on the phone with nearby Tubman Elementary School and arranged a trade: some of her extra cheese sauce for some of their chips. She drove off saying, “This better be enough!” and returned a short while later with three two-pound bags of corn chips and an eight-pound box of taco shells.

Add some Ore Ida “tater tots,” quickly heated in the convection oven, plus some Mission Pride fruit mix out of six-pound cans, and lunch was served.

The highly processed nature of school food concerns some food advocates. “Healthy Schools” legislation now pending before the D.C. Council would require the school system to publish the ingredients in all the foods it serves so that parents and others can see them. It would make a book: many of the nutrition labels on school food products read like chemistry experiments–only longer. You would also need an encyclopedia to know what the ingredients mean.

For instance, the toppings on one of the pizzas served at H.D. Cooke, something called “Smart Pizza” made by Schwan’s Food Service in Marshall, Minnesota, and shipped to the school frozen, lists the following ingredients: low moisture part-skim mozzarella cheese, mozzarella cheese substitute, cheese solids, modified food starch, rennet casein, sweet whey, non-fat dry milk, sodium aluminum phosphate, salt, carrageenan, magnesium oxide, ferric orthophosphate, modified food starch, sugar, dextrose, salt, spice, onion, dehydrated romano cheese, garlic powder, paprika, citric acid and beet powder.

“Teriyaki bites” on the school menu are made by Pierre Foods in Cinncinati, Ohio, which describes them as “fully cooked, flame-broiled, strip-shaped beef patties with teriyaki sauce.” The ingredients, which include commodity products from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, read as follows: ground beef, teriyaki sauce, sugar, water, distilled vinegar, modified food starch, pineapple juice concentrate, soybean oil, caramel color, xanthan gum, garlic powder, sodium benzoate, wine powder, natural rice wine flavor, textured vegetable protein product.”

On Tuesday the week’s provisions did in fact arrive and the freezer was suddenly full again–shelves filled with boxes, boxes stacked chest high in the row between the shelves. There was barely room to squeeze through. There were “turkey ham” slices, chicken patties and hot dogs, chicken nuggets and scrambled eggs. There were bags of sliced pepperoni for pizza, turkey sausage patties and boxes of potatoes in several different permutations: hash brown patties, potato wedges, tater tots, “breakfast cubes.” There was biscuit dough, pizza, muffins, juice cups and of course hamburgers with those familiar ersatz grill marks.

It looked like next week’s menu was assured. Now we just had to get through the rest of this week.

Tomorrow: Calling all vegetables.

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  • brynngslate

    The ingredient lists and convoluted travel routes of these “fresh” foods are jaw-dropping. Thank you for looking deeper into this switch to “fresh-cooked”, which seems like it’s more a token gesture to keep up with the media attention on food instead of a genuine interest in offering wholesome meals to DC’s most vulnerable citizens–its children!

  • islander07

    I’m wondering if you will get to what the actual cost of this is, (incl labor?) does the school system track this, would they share that with you? Are there any schools in DC that do it the “old” way, where real food is cooked on site?
    My daughter never buys lunch, always brings it from home, doesn’t like the food at the cafeteria.

    Do you have any viable options, or examples of places that are serving 300 kids with good food for similar costs?

    What should we be advocating for our local school system?

  • Carl Rollins

    When they are running for office politicians say that education issues are among their top priorities. The public demands as much. However, when budget crunches hit it’s often the local/state education funding that take the first hit. We saw that in DC recently when hundreds of teachers were inexplicably laid off. So it comes as no surprise that school systems are using their food budgets to squeeze every dime out of the system. Potatoes as a vegetable? My mom didn’t buy that in our house growing up. Sadly, “fresh cook” sounds like just another way for Chartwell’s to pad their bottom line. Perhaps we all need to start putting our money where are mouths are.

  • drinkofwater

    Great series so far! But I wonder … Are you anti-frozen veggies? Seems like they are a pretty logical thing for a school cafeteria to keep in reserve, although I can understand that you prefer that they don’t rely on them. Freezing is a good alternative for farmers as well since it’s impossible to eat an entire crop immediately after harvesting. My grandma, the wife of a farmer, always kept vegetables and fruits in the freezer or “put up” in cans that she’d canned herself. I understand that the canning process drains nutrients from fresh fruits and veggies, but I was under the impression that freezing didn’t have quite the same effect.

  • Ed Bruske

    DOW — I have nothing against freezing. In this context, it did seem to juxtapose with the concept of “fresh cooked.” Freezing is a perfectly acceptable food storage method. I freeze plenty of the vegetables I grow in my garden so that we can enjoy them during the dark days of winter. The issue, I think, lies in how they are handled.

  • lostchef68

    WOW u have done it again… Another indepth report on the obivious and average ingredient listing on anything you purchased in Giant. Way to go! For your next exlusive you should find your way to the HotDogs in your fridge and read the labels out loud before bed time and tell your daughter what is “Erythorbate” that she loves so much! If you don’t know it is a simple flavor and texture preservative found in hotdogs, cured meats and other products. Don’t blame the hot dog it is just the carrier. In closing i must ask another stupid question…
    If you saw a bag of frozen vegetables in the store will you curse them for being frozen?

  • ycats

    This amazing! At our school, we were quite excited about “hot” meals coming because we were on of the schools that had the pre-packaged meals. The “hot” meals are full of fillers. You should see the “steriod” sized chicken pieces with 1/2 inch breading (of course the in an exaggeration). Our students tend to eat less of the “hot” food. the plus side is there does seem to be more of a variety on the menu. The milk choices are better now. I like the fact that “white” milk is fat free oor 1%, and most days children can select chocolate AND strawberry if so desired.

  • Ed Bruske

    Ycats, sorry I can’t agree with you on the milk. In our house, we drink unhomogenized “creamtop” milk from a local, grassfed dairy herd. The milk served in D.C. schools is an abomination. I’d much rather see whole milk and drop the sodas posing as milk with all their high-fructose corn syrup. Strawberry milk? You’ve got to be kidding. It has seven teaspoons of sugar in it. Add just one more and you’ve got Mountain Dew. And some kids are drinking it twice a day.

  • ReesieKitty

    Wow, again with the hostility! I am starting to wonder if at least one commenter here is hired by a giant food corporation to cruse these sites and stick up for processed food.
    The point is that simply reconstituting pre-packaged processed food filled with additives and preservatives is NOT ‘fresh cooking’.

    People’s personal choices about what they serve their families on their own time are one thing- but my tax dollars go to help subsidize school lunches!

    I am absolutely happy to support a program to give a kid a hot meal, especially since for some, it may be the only decent meal he gets all day.

    But as a taxpayer, I want those dollars to go to FRESH, minimally-processed HEALTHY food for all the kids!!

  • pennylane

    I work for Chartwell and i can’t wait for the changes. I think what we feed the kids is crap. It upsets me every day when i see what the kids walk away with. Wanna know what the lunches cost? They choose what they choose to keep cost down. I heard my bosses boss say that they needed to keep the lunch cost under 46 cents per student to stay within budget, mostly by using as much of the commodities as we can, such as nuggets, dippers etc. The USDA says everything we feed them is within nutritional guidelines, but would they eat it? NO! WE can’t offer pickes. Too much sodium, but nuggets and pizza are fine. Not in my book. I just hope changes comes quickly. Our kids deserve alot better food.