Bringing Healthy Food to Schools Through Competition

By: David Cover

When you think back about your childhood, what do you remember most about the food served in the school cafeteria? For me personally, I remember lots of greasy pizza, french fries, and sloppy joes. I am not sure if I ever ate fresh fruit or vegetables. Over the years I have heard about how schools have been trying to implement healthy meals including fresh fruits and vegetables. I always believed that most children would prefer greasy, fried foods over fresh, plant based options if they had a choice. I know that my 10 year old self would choose the french fries over broccoli any day of the week. However, after my rotation with Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), my beliefs on this subject radically changed.

The dietitians at MCPS have been working tirelessly to offer a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, and low sodium meals at a very low cost to children and their families. The staff at MCPS understand that many children may be reluctant to try foods such as whole grains, soy based products, green vegetables, etc, so they have devised clever ways of introducing these important foods into the menu. For example, all of the pizzas served now use 100% whole grain crust, and they have somehow been able to produce vegetable chicken nuggets that taste like the real thing! Believe it or not, the children are actually enjoying these healthy food options. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw students choose the chicken salad over a steak and cheese sandwich. During this rotation I learned that dietitians have a two fold goal for introducing these healthy ingredients. Successfully introducing these healthier menu items is not only important for children’s health in the here and now; over time children will become more accustomed to the flavors of these healthy ingredients, making them more likely to eat well later in life.The dietitians and chefs at MCPS have really done a great job at providing healthy, nutritious meals that satisfy the students’ tastes, all for a very low price.

In addition to providing nutritious and tasty meals for the students of Montgomery County, MCPS has even encouraged children countywide to come up with their own healthy recipes. MCPS has partnered with Real Food for Kids (RFFK), whose mission is to promote nutrition and health literacy to children of all ages. Just this year RFFK held a culinary challenge for more than 100 students from five local school districts with the goal of creating a nutritious dish that would be featured on the school lunch menu next year in Fairfax, Prince William, Arlington, Loudoun, and Montgomery County schools. Takoma Park Middle School students won this challenge with their “Kale Power Bowl.” During my rotation at MCPS, my internship partner and I were able to assist in preparing this recipe in our test kitchen to ensure a smooth rollout in the schools.

This “Power Bowl” consisted of kale, roasted squash, shredded chicken, quinoa, apple slices, raisins, and a chipotle salad dressing. It was hard to believe that middle school students came up with this recipe; I don’t think I have ever made a salad that fancy! It was a great experience working with a chef at MCPS to determine the best way to instruct kitchens to prepare the salad. I was able to learn about the various restraints large food service organizations have to work within in order to roll out recipes to large populations. The MCPS cafeteria staff gets extremely busy preparing meals throughout the day so it was important for us to determine the most efficient way to prepare the salad in order for it to be easily prepared at all the schools countywide.

In the end, we had to use a rice/quinoa blend to cut costs and craisins because MCPS already places large orders for craisins and had them on hand. I also learned that if we blanched the kale instead of serving it raw, it would take away some of the bitterness and make it look more appealing to the students by brightening the color. Hopefully our modifications worked to both increase student interest in the salad and make it easier for the kitchen staff to prepare. Other school districts might have to modify the recipe in other ways, but our recipe turned out great and I look forward to hearing students’ reactions in the coming school year.

It was a great experience interning at MCPS division of food services, the staff there really cares about school nutrition and work very hard to ensure students are receiving great tasting and nutritious meals at a reasonable price. Public school nutrition was an area of food service management that I really enjoyed, and I hope to have the opportunity to work in this area again. Until then, I look forward to preparing this “Power Bowl” at home for myself to enjoy.

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