Ginger beef & veggie stir-fry over whole grain noodles. Spiced apple and cheddar quesadilla. Stacked chicken cordon bleu. Side salad with homemade garlic and shallot balsamic vinaigrette. Fruit salad with granola and homemade whipped cream.
Those are not menu items from the next hot restaurant. Those are school lunches. School lunches as reimagined by chefs and the kids who actually get to eat them everyday.
Last Saturday, Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s (CKP) Project Lunch Tray held its first of two public events, showcasing the work that seven chefs have been doing with staff and students of seven schools to campaign for better school lunches. CKP and the chefs have been working intensively with students for the past month to present alternatives to present day school lunches.
CKP is a nonprofit that provides workforce development services with culinary-based training programs. CKP’s philosophy is focused on advocacy for food education and a sustainable regional food system.
Staying within USDA nutrition guidelines and a school’s cost criteria, the teams came up with kid-approved meals. Most Pittsburgh Public Schools do not have working kitchens and school menus typically include highly processed frozen meals, delivered from central facilities and microwaved at the schools. These menu items include mozzarella sticks, pizza, corn dogs, chicken nuggets and the best one of all—the walking taco, which is inspired by putting ground meat over Fritos and calling it food.
School lunches in the United States have been a challenge that has been well-documented in the media—from Congress counting “pizza as a vegetable” to memes that compare what our schools serve with school lunches from around the world.
Funded by a grant from BNY Mellon Foundation of Southwestern Pennsylvania, CKP launched the initiative to raise awareness for what is possible with school lunches—a meal that many children depend on as their primary source of nutrition for the entire day.
“These middle school kids have come up with some amazing ideas for school lunches—all their entries follow USDA guidelines for school lunches and they are cost-effective and scalable for a cafeteria,” says CKP Co-Director Jennifer Flanagan.
CKP’s job training initiative includes commercial food services that provide for many community programs including from-scratch meals on wheels and school lunches for the Environmental Charter School and Manchester Academic Charter School.
At the Environmental Charter School, the budget per student is between $2.00-$2.50, says Kelsey Weisgerber, the school’s food service director. According to Tod Shoenberger, CKP co-director, the current reimbursement rates for Pittsburgh Public School meals are $2.98 for children qualified for free lunches, $2.58 for children qualified for reduced price lunches and .28 for paid lunches. Almost 65% of students in Pittsburgh Public Schools qualify for free lunches.
The schools participating in Project Lunch Tray are Arsenal Middle School, Langley K-8, Environmental Charter School, Propel Braddock Hills, Propel McKeesport, Manchester Academic Charter School and The Neighborhood Academy.
Chefs participating in the program include Keith Fuller of Root 174, Tod Shoenberger of CKP, Jamie Moore of the Eat n’ Park Hospitality Group, Michelle O’Leary of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, John Crooks of CCAC and school food service chefs Dan Fiore of Propel and Thomas Harrison of The Neighborhood Academy.
“This project has been an eye opener on the state specs for school lunches,” says Chef Fuller. “Luckily this group of students has it down pat. Honestly these kids know what they want. I am just here to guide them and teach them the cooking techniques to make it happen.”
Recipes created during Project Lunch Tray will eventually be offered in schools that CKP serves.
“We will certainly be adding competition entries to our school lunch cycle menus, and hope other schools that have that option will do the same,” says Flanagan. “It’s great that we will now have these student ambassadors in the lunchroom. When their entrée shows up on the school menu, you can be sure the team members will be encouraging their fellow students to try it.”
Project Lunch Tray will hold the final event at the Farm to Table Conference on March 27 and 28 at the David Lawrence Convention Center. Each of the seven schools will present their final entry and a panel of judges, as well as a people’s choice vote for the best meal will be held on March 28th.
But the campaign is not going to end there, according to Flanagan. “We are going to make sure each school gets a cooking club “starter kit” with small wares, equipment and products, along with continued engagement from our education and outreach staff,” she says. “We are working with the students on nutrition, food exploration and home cooking, including kitchen safety, because a number of the students are responsible for cooking for younger siblings at home.”