City schools test vegetarian lunch menu

 The black bean and brown rice taco that chef Martha Stafford presented to the School Community Nutrition Committee (SCNC) at Charlottesville High School last Wednesday night was anything but ordinary. The black beans were prepared with cumin, oregano and bay leaves. Onions and green bell peppers, inexpensive and in season, were sautéed, and garlic, tomato paste and a bit of chili powder were added to the mix. The simple, healthy dish may be headed to a school lunch line near you.

Martha Stafford, owner of the Charlottesville Cooking School (pictured), was hired to prepare recipes for a possible vegetarian menu at Charlottesville City Schools. While her home kitchen is her “laboratory,” local students will soon evaluate Stafford’s culinary experiments.

Charlottesville city schools, with help from city schools dietician Alicia Cost, are trying to reinvent the student lunch experience by adding what they call “plant-based” recipes such as Stafford’s to their school lunch menus. If Cost and Stafford can get students to bite, dishes like the black bean and brown rice taco could appear on school lunch menus in the next 12 weeks.

“[Cost] is trying to bring small batch cooking back into [school] kitchens,” says Stafford, chef and owner of the Charlottesville Cooking School, who was hired as a consultant to write recipes.

Last year, Cost began thinking about how to implement the idea—from the cost of food to training for the cooks to, most importantly, getting the students to eat unfamiliar, healthy foods. Stafford says the challenge isn’t making the food delicious. “It’s got to compete,” she says.

For the taco recipe, Stafford— a graduate of the Institute of Culinary Education who has spent two decades working with fresh and organic ingredients—says she started by asking, “What feeds the rest of the world?”

“Rice and beans,” answers Stafford. “And it’s not expensive.”

Current school lunches offer a variety of rather unhealthy choices, from sandwiches and pizza to corn dogs and hamburgers. (Fresh, local fruit was added to CHS menus in the past year.) Students may purchase lunch for $1.75 in elementary schools and $2 in high school. However, 52 percent of the Charlottesville City School student population qualifies for the Free and Reduced meal program. 

“If [parents] don’t spend the money on the school lunch, [schools] don’t have the money to spend on higher quality ingredients, and it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Stafford. The current price per meal at city schools ranges from $0.85 to $1.05, plus labor and $0.20 for commodities. Cost expects the new menu items to fall within the same range.

The move toward healthier school lunches is in harmony with First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign against childhood obesity. Cost says that now is “the right time to be making these kinds of changes.”

According to the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years. Obesity among children 6 to 11 years old has increased to 19.6 percent in 2008 from 6.5 percent in 1980. Let’s Move reports that Americans currently eat 31 percent more calories and 15 more pounds of sugar compared to 1970.

The problem is, kids need to have their lunch and like it, too. 

Enter the nutrition committee. The 15-member group of parents and administrators will manage taste testing in all nine city schools. Groups of students will receive a sample of Stafford’s taco recipe and a fun score card on which to rate it. The committee, in turn, will collect the data and send it to Cost to analyze. 

“Our vision is that we are going to work smarter. We are going to try to use what we have and be fiscally responsible to the community, because we are using taxpayers’ dollars to prepare and serve food,” says Cost. 

“My own children are my laboratory. This [taco recipe] is part of the standard of our household,” says Stafford. And if city schools become the next laboratory, Stafford already has a winter recipe ready for students’ next course: a thick-skinned winter squash soup.

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