Charleston County School District Redefines Cafeteria Food
There's no denying that for decades school lunches left a lot to be desired – both nutritionally and in tasting good. Twenty plus years since being a grade-school student myself, my daughter is experiencing the lunchroom for the first time. While initially apprehensive – and determined to pack every lunch for her from now until the end of time – I found myself pleasantly surprised at the caliber of food now being offered. A far cry from the "slop" I remember, I soon discovered that the Charleston County School District spent the summer prior to this school year redefining what cafeteria food can look like – and, I have to say, it's working.
Speaking with Walter Campbell, executive director of Nutrition Services for the Charleston County School District, and Nutrition Services Supervisor Joseph Pettit, it's clear that making healthy food approachable was top of the mind for their team.
"We knew we had to be more competitive in terms of taste for the kids to choose us for breakfast and lunch. It's our goal to make food with flavor and nutrition that the kids want to eat, not just have to eat. At the end of the day, it's not nutritious if the kids don't consume it in the first place," Pettit explained.
Taking it a step further, CCSD is trying to remove the stigma associated with "free lunches," serving up "complimentary" breakfast and lunch to every student in 54 of their almost 80 schools, buildings or annexes.
"It's based upon the areas the schools are in, not on the individual child's parental income. We don't want kids to think that because they get a free lunch their family has less than others and is embarrassed by it," Pettit said.
Following the 2016-2017 school year, Nutrition Services managers got right to work figuring out the secret to bringing beneficial food to their cafeterias that kids would actually want to eat. Their starting point? Looking at local and nationwide restaurant trends.
"Every popular food and beverage venue asks the consumer what it is they like and then they make it happen. We knew we needed to have our foods student-tested and approved to make this a success," Pettit said.
The team spent hours every day in their "true-test kitchen," endlessly changing, adapting and improving recipes until they found a winner among the kids being surveyed.
"If you can imagine three managers like crazy scientists in the lab, we went through seven different honey mustard recipes alone until we found the perfect one – who knew you could make honey mustard so many different ways?" Pettit joked.
With the understanding that good-for-you foods could be exciting – and typically unhealthy foods could be reinvented – they started creating dishes that brought flavor without the unnecessary sugars, calories or fats. In fact, not a single item on their menu is fried. Instead, they opted for items such as baked "fried" rice and oven-baked "fried" chicken.
And, of course, they could have simply served steamed broccoli and called it a day, but why not turn it into a delicious broccoli salad that the kids would love instead? That train of thought carried through every aspect of their recipe building, leading them to items such as quinoa salad that Pettit said didn't have to be on the menu according to regulations, but it was "important to them to expose the kids to new ways of enjoying different foods."
Even taste-testing ham and cheese sandwiches was eye opening: "We use real, quality products that sometimes kids aren't accustomed to, so when we were testing our Hormel ham and cheese sandwiches, the kids were asking, 'Why does this taste so different?' and, as it turns out, they love the taste of unprocessed cheese. When they tasted quality, they knew the difference," Campbell added.
The Hard Facts
Contrary to popular belief, creating a calendar year of meals for schools isn't as simple as picking foods and stepping into the kitchen, let alone having a focus on nourishing foods.
"We have to have a recipe analyzed for nutrients before we can ever feed it to a child. That means designing a menu full of appealing new options while adhering to the nutritional and budgetary regulations put before us," said Campbell.
Requirements state that a specific daily caloric intake must average out over the course of five school days.
"When building the recipes with the caloric intakes in mind, we always factor in based on the presumption that every component of the meal will be consumed," Campbell said.
Additionally, health standards require that they not only serve a vegetable with every meal – which obviously was already a priority – but that the vegetables vary to include all of the pertinent sub-groups: leafy greens, red/ orange veggies, starchy veggies and legumes.
Allergents and Precautions
Campbell and Pettit both impressed the importance of obeying strict guidelines when it comes to allergies, noting that the entire menu is built around dietary issues such as gluten, dairy, nuts and seafood.
"We understand how to handle every allergy imaginable and are trained to accommodate and guide the kids through their school lunches. To guarantee this, every manager is Serve Safe certified, and we have software that registers every child's specific allergies when they check out their lunches. We communicate their allergies throughout the school, all the way from the nurse to the cashier – the last line of defense," Campbell explained.
And just like how your favorite restaurants are kept up to code, the Department of Health and Environmental Control visits the schools throughout the year to ensure exemplary food-handling procedures, with additional protocols to safeguard against cleanliness, temperature or food safety issues.
"We make a sample tray for every single meal we serve throughout the year, down to a piece of lettuce, and keep it for seven calendar days according to protocol for safety purposes," he said.
Foodie Fan Favorites
With options such as teriyaki chicken or homemade macaroni and cheese, it's hard to find just one fan favorite throughout the schools. "Brunch for lunch," meatball marinara and chicken and waffles all rank high on the list among the younger kids, while the chicken and cheese quesadilla, with scratch-made chili lime oil, is a hit in the high schools.
Even the hot dog, a notoriously unhealthy option, received a facelift this year. CCSD now offers all-beef Hebrew National kosher dogs with buns without a hint of high-fructose corn syrup.
"We could have gone with the cheaper products and saved money, but CCSD isn't willing to sacrifice food quality or taste ever again," Campbell explained.
Perhaps the most surprising win of all is the house-made pickles that students and teachers alike can't seem to stop crunching on.
The Tasty Verdict
Halfway through the school year and the results speak for themselves. Across the district, both breakfast and lunch numbers are on the rise, and, with the growing social media buzz surrounding their daily dishes, you can see that the parents are just as excited as the kids.
"It's not what school food was 20 years ago. The amount of pride that I see every team member across the district take in the food they are creating and serving blows me away," Pettit said proudly.
As for me, the mom who hesitantly gave into the idea of my daughter eating school lunch? Well, consider me a convert. With the menu overflowing with delicious and wholesome options, I know that no matter what she chooses, it'll be both parent and student-approved.