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Improving School Lunch Without A Fully Working Kitchen

I have written extensively about improving the food served in our schools, but what if your school doesn’t have a fully equipped kitchen, which is the case for most New York City schools? What do you do then? Below, Helen Martineau, a parent serving on the Wellness Committee at the Neighborhood School in the East Village, describes the steps her school community has taken to improve school lunch, despite not having a stovetop and exhaust system.

Guest post by Helen Martineau

In the cafeteria kitchen of the Neighborhood School and P.S. 63, our Ansul system (a fire suppression system typically found in restaurants and food-service kitchens) broke more than 10 years ago — so long ago that no one who presently works in the cafeteria remembers a time when the kitchen staff was able to actually cook. In the meantime, the remnants of our Ansul system and our exhaust system have become so obsolete that fixing them is a massive job.

The first step in undertaking the huge task of getting a working kitchen is having a feasibility study done. The Department of Education is presently giving priority to problems that pose a danger to students, so they weren’t likely to pay for our study ($35,000!) any time soon. We applied for and received public money from the City Council for the study. Next, we have to try and get our kitchen on the DOE’s Five-Year Capital Plan. Again, updating our cafeteria to a working kitchen is a low-priority project for the city. The project didn’t make it onto the city’s current plan, which goes through 2014, and there’s no guarantee that it will make it onto the next one either, especially with the budget cuts we’re seeing.

We are working on a request to the City Council for money for our new kitchen in an attempt to speed up the process, but even if that funding comes through, we’ll still have to rely on the School Construction Authority to do the work, and they are notorious for working at a glacial pace. So who knows when, if ever, our schools will have a full, working kitchen.

In the meantime, we have explored other options to facilitate cooking in our kitchen. One of the families in our school owns a restaurant (Ciao for Now), and they have an induction burner, which doesn’t require an Ansul or exhaust system. We repeatedly tried to get permission from the DOE’s Office of SchoolFood to purchase one — it costs $2,500, which we planned on financing ourselves somehow — but were denied. We were told that the fire department determined that an Ansul system was needed with an induction burner, even though restaurants all over the city use induction burners without Ansul systems. My hope is that parents around the city will start making enough noise about induction burners so that the city will finally relent. It seems like such a simple and inexpensive solution. We are also looking into getting a giant rice cooker, which would have to be vetted by SchoolFood as well.

Our cook, Jackie, does an amazing job of making do with what she has: a double convection oven and a steamer. The DOE gave our schools the steamer as a workaround implement for the stovetop (an option for other schools without stovetops). On the outside the steamer looks like an oven, with a door that opens on the front. Inside is a pan that can be filled with water, which creates the steam. Jackie can actually cook pasta in the steamer, as well as rice and vegetables. When she makes sauces, she roasts onions and garlic in oil in the oven before adding tomatoes and spices. That’s her method for cooking Cuban black beans and just about anything saucy. But that’s about it. We can’t have soup, for instance, or anything else that would require boiling.

Our SchoolFood partnership meetings are currently about tweaking the menu and trying to be creative with what we have. We enjoy Meatless Mondays, although we don’t officially call it that. For our meat-free Mondays, we mostly work within the existing SchoolFood repertoire: pasta, toasted cheese sandwiches, and lasagna roll-ups, while also serving lots of rice and beans, vegetarian chili, vegetable egg rolls, and even a little tofu (even though the USDA does not recognize tofu as either a protein or a vegetable, so it goes into our bean stew).

As for other changes we’ve made, we have eliminated chicken nuggets altogether. On hamburger day, we also offer veggie burgers. We try not to have a lot of beef items on our menu as a result of the New York Times article that exposed the poor quality of the beef served in our nation’s schools. We offer rice and beans at least twice a week, which can be served either as a side dish or a main entrée (this is proving to be very popular). We have a sort of whole-grain bread — the first ingredient is still white flour, but there are many whole grains in it as well — that we use for the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, providing a more nutritious entrée alternative for our students.

Years ago the former principal at the Neighborhood School and a group of parents did some work to improve the schools’ lunches. They brought in our salad bar and got all fried food off the menu. They assumed that once they’d made these changes with SchoolFood, the menu would reflect their preferences on an ongoing basis. But we found out that if you don’t stay vigilant and meet regularly with your SchoolFood manager, all those chicken nuggets and beef raviolis you thought you’d eliminated will sneak back on the kids’ plates. Once you agree on your priorities and develop a strategy with your SchoolFood nutritionist, though, it’s just a matter of a quick meeting with her once a month and things move pretty smoothly. Beyond that, it’s a matter of your own ambitions for your school’s lunches.

Here at P.S. 63 and the Neighborhood School, we continue to work on getting our stovetop, even though it looks like it will take several years and none of the current parents’ kids will benefit from it!

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