By COLLEEN MCCARTHY
School lunches have not always had the best reputation.
Mystery meat and prepackaged, over-processed items are frequently seen on school cafeteria menus across the country.
But schools from all over Mississippi are looking to change that this week with the help of Chef David Bruno, a highly respected chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America.
Bruno was contracted by the State Purchasing Management Committee to work on reducing sodium and other unhealthy ingredients in recipes used in school meals. He is working with administrators from across the state at Armstrong Middle School this week to develop the new recipes that will not only be healthy, but also taste good, too.
The change was inspired by a new set of standards proposed by the USDA.
“When it is finally adopted — if it is adopted in the form that we’ve seen — sodium levels in school lunches will go down drastically,” said Priscilla Ammerman, director of purchasing and food distribution. “There is a phase-in period over 10 years where they are really going to go down very, very low.”
And the new recipes will dramatically lower the sodium children consume.
“We looked at our old spaghetti recipe that used a seasoning packet that had 1,024 milligrams of sodium,” said Beverly Lowry, director of child nutrition for the Starkville School District. “What we did yesterday was around 350.”
Although they are not yet required by law to lower the sodium in school meals, Ammerman wanted to make sure they had enough time to implement the changes before the new standards took effect. Once they develop the recipes, they will test the food within a school setting to ensure the students will actually eat it. If at least 75 percent of the students give the meal a positive rating, it will find its way to the permanent menu.
“We’re not going to put something out there at a 50 percent approval rating,” Ammerman said. “That means half of your students are not going to pick it up.”
One of the biggest challenges is making healthy, low-sodium foods kids will like.
“The Southern and American diet is high in sodium. So, we have several items that you would think of as being standard items in school lunch, like spaghetti, chili and sloppy joes. In the past, what we have used have been seasoning mixes, which are fairly high in sodium — well, probably really high in sodium,” Ammerman said. “To address the drop in sodium, we have asked the chef to come and work with us and our recipes that would throw out the seasoning mixes and use just seasonings that would lower the sodium and still address the Southern palette.”
Luckily Bruno has worked with other school lunch programs around the country to make foods healthier for children.
“There are a few areas we look at including fresh herbs, different acids we can bring in and, of course, spices,” Bruno said. “Those are the areas we really look to give us the flavor boost.”
At the end of this week, the committee will take the recipes Bruno developed and put them through a nutrient analysis to determine the final sodium levels. Then, they will publish the recipes to the 153 public school districts and the items should be on the menu for the coming school year.
“We will also give them to several Head Start programs, so we can get to the little kids, too,” Ammerman said, “hopefully before they develop some of the bad habits that we’ve gotten ourselves into, like too much salt.”
While cutting out sodium has been the main focus, whole grains are also being phased into the menu. With the passing of the Healthy Student Act, 50 percent of grain products currently on the menu are whole grains. Over the next few years, all pastas and breads served in school cafeterias will be whole grains.
So far, administrators have been impressed with the recipes Bruno has prepared. The New Yorker is even tackling the Cajun classic red beans and rice. They did hit a little snag with the spaghetti sauce, though.
“We thought by Southern standards it was not quite tomato-y enough,” Ammerman said.
“It was too Brooklyn-like,” Bruno joked.