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Want all NYC school meals cooked from scratch? It’s possible, a report finds

Preparing fresh, marinated chicken from scratch may not seem like a big deal at home. Now add in hundreds of schoolchildren, federal nutrition guidelines, and a kitchen that needs updating, and it becomes a gargantuan task. 

Still with the right investments in equipment, supplies, and training, it’s doable, even for a school system that feeds about 940,000 free meals a day. That was a key finding of a report released Tuesday night from the Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy at Columbia University’s Teachers College. 

“I think the biggest takeaway is that scratch cooking is indeed possible in New York City schools, which wasn’t assumed,” said Pamela Koch, the principal investigator of the evaluation, which was funded by the city department of education, and donors including the New York Community Trust, the New York State Health Foundation, and the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation.

Researchers behind the report examined a pilot program at five public Bronx schools that served meals made from raw ingredients, rather than the standard reheated or processed foods served in most city cafeterias. (Several schools use alternative menus that offer some foods prepared from scratch, such as slow-roasted carrots and vegetable rice.) The pilot, highlighted by The New York Times earlier this year, was a partnership between the city’s Office of Food and Nutrition Services, or OFNS, and Brigaid, a school food consulting company. 

The goal of the program evolved over time — from seeing how individual kitchens could implement scratch-based cooking to figuring out how to introduce some of these meals across the city while adding more schools to the pilot.

And it seems the idea has caught on: In September eight other menus from which schools can choose included food prepared from scratch, such as peach BBQ chicken and chicken dumplings with vegetable fried rice. 

But expanding scratch-cooking for all city schools is only possible with “serious” city investments, the report found. That includes updating kitchen infrastructure where needed, training staff, and coordinating logistics, such as ordering supplies, and promoting school meals — all while continuing to follow federal and city nutrition guidelines for school food. Even having the right dishwasher that can properly clean pans that have touched raw animal protein is a detail to consider, said Claire Raffel, deputy director of the Tisch Center.

The city is adding more schools to the scratch cooking pilot this year, said Miranda Barbot, a spokeswoman for the education department, but she did not specify how many or which ones. She said the city has “been successful in using the recipes we develop in these kitchens to enhance the menu citywide,” and the school system is continuing to tweak menus based on feedback, including from students. 

Raffel said that nationally, school food has had a bad reputation but, in reality, the nutritional standards have improved over time, especially with the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act passed under President Barack Obama. The effects of eating scratch-cooked food are still part of emerging research. A recent National Institutes of Health study found that overly processed foods lead to overeating and eventually, to weight gain. An example of processed food in that study was a bagel with cream cheese and turkey bacon for breakfast, versus the unprocessed option of oatmeal with bananas, walnuts, and skim milk. Two other studies conducted this year linked ultra-processed foods to heart disease. 

Staffers behind the Bronx pilot program were able to successfully serve scratch-cooked meals to hundreds of students — for the full school year at one site, which services four high schools, and for half of a school year at a K-8 school. They were “peeling fresh ginger root, slicing pounds of raw onions, cleaning raw chicken thighs, and measuring multiple spices,” as a few examples in the report noted.

For this study, researchers looked at the development of the pilot program — called Return to Scratch Cooking — and then watched as kitchens created the scratch-cooked meals. Staffers were trained on making a range of foods, such as fresh pizza dough, sauces from raw ingredients, and fresh, marinated chicken — instead of using pre-packaged foods for any of these dishes.

But there were several changes that had to be made before cooking got underway. Kitchens had to exceed fire and food safety standards, required the right electrical wiring and plumbing, needed special equipment — such as the right dishwasher. Kitchens preparing school food had not cooked raw meat for several decades before this pilot, according to the report, so things like “food protection” zones — where only specific foods or tasks could be handled — had to be established. 

At the first site, costs for food, labor and supply per 100 meals grew more than expected, with labor costs more than doubling compared to the previous year. But at the second site, food and supply costs decreased. There, labor costs increased, too, but by a smaller percentage than the first kitchen. Researchers suggested this could be the result of those staffers learning lessons from the first site and may signal those costs could level off over time as workers become more skilled. Also, since some food and supply costs are fixed, more students choosing to eat school meals could make things more cost-effective, they said. 

As more staffers became accustomed to the work, some suggested they would start making pizza dough from scratch at home. Others expressed surprise by the ability to make jerk sauce instead of buying a bottle at the store, Raffel said. In the report, one unnamed teacher who’d never before bought school meals began purchasing food in the cafeteria and said, “it actually feels like having real lunch.”

But students did not show overwhelming enthusiasm. Though OFNS expected student participation in meals to increase modestly, there was an average 10% drop between both sites. Surveys given to students showed no substantial change in their opinion about the food, and most families who got to taste some of the food rated it positively, the report said. 

“Our best guess was that the food was different for students because it takes time for them to become familiar with the food, and we need to allow adjustment for that,” Koch said. 

Going forward, the team suggests steps to expand, which include gathering support for scratch-cooking within the education department and then increasing the number of kitchens that use full menus with foods prepared from scratch, allowing others to observe how it’s done. Getting students excited about scratch-cooked meals is key, Raffel and Koch said, and it’s still unknown how much it would cost to properly update kitchens.

“It is akin to turning an aircraft carrier around — it takes time,” Raffel said.