Debbie Olmstead doesn't make pizza at home as often as she used to.
Tasked with the production of at least 60 pizzas a day for Battle Ground Public Schools, the cook's cravings for the floppy pie have been, well, stretched. Each morning she pulls and crimps whole grain dough on a pizza pan, slathers a scoop of tomato sauce edge to edge and then sprinkles it with low-fat cheese and other toppings.
After 18 years of pizza production, the love that Olmstead puts into the task results in student-approved pies that beg to be bitten into; even so, Olmstead saves her pizza perfection for the kitchen at Battle Ground High School where many of the district's breakfast and lunch items are prepared before being transported to other schools.
Pizza is just one of the entrees that the district's food service partner, Sodexo, makes from scratch. Homemade items such as chili, tacos, sloppy joes, lasagna, spaghetti, banana bread, apple crisp, applesauce muffins and pumpkin pie also grace school menus. Making dishes from scratch for Battle Ground students lets Nutrition Services' team of cooks and bakers control how much fat, sugars, and salt are in the finished food so that they can be a part of balanced meals that meet nutritional standards. Many of the recipes used by Sodexo for its Made from Scratch menu items are 30 years old, but have been adjusted to meet the nutritional requirements established by the federal government.
Pizza is one of the many menu items that has been recreated in the last five years to meet the nutritional requirements of the current iteration of the Child Nutrition Act, which governs school meals and provides for free and reduced-price meal programs. This month, Congress is expected to reauthorize the act, now called the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Annual applications for free and reduced-price meals are due by the end of September. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has said Congress should reauthorize the act without any changes that would weaken its nutritional standards. Those standards require schools to serve students balanced meals that are based on national dietary guidelines and have restricted amounts of sodium and fat and meet the caloric needs of students.
For Battle Ground Public Schools, the standards meant significant changes to school lunches and strategic menu planning. Kirsten Fox, Sodexo's registered dietitian for the district, takes into account multiple parameters when she develops menus for each school level: primary, middle and high school.
The main considerations are that meals are restricted to a specific amount of sodium and fat spread over a week's worth of lunches and that meals must meet student's caloric needs. In addition, students purchasing a meal must take a serving of fruit or vegetables and the meal must also include a grain and/or a protein (meat or meat alternative) and water, juice or milk.
As she plans menus, Fox pays careful attention to the sodium content of many prepared foods that include salty items like ham so that the sodium content meets the standards over a week of meals. Sodexo also has sought out healthier alternatives to many kid standbys like the corn dog. "It looks like a corn dog," Fox said, "but no longer is it a fatty beef frank with lots of salt. It's a whole-grain breaded turkey frank with lower sodium."
Perhaps the most difficult part of menu planning is balancing kids' preferences with nutritional values, Fox said. "The more we can offer a version of what they like, the more pleased kids will be." She often looks for kid-versions of healthy foods that she can introduce. With the cool mornings already coming on, Fox has plans to introduce oatmeal as a breakfast item. She has found a way for schools to cook the oatmeal in their rice cookers. Some schools will cook it in their ovens.
Still, Nutrition Services can't force children to eat what they must take as part of their balanced meals. Sodexo has put "share tables" at each school where kids can leave something they don't want for someone else to enjoy. The practice has cut down on food waste in Battle Ground, which increased across the nation as schools have complied with the new nutritional standards.
Another big change to school meals is the switch to whole grains. Before 2010, students typically ate white bread made from refined grains. But now, every grain that comes out of a school's kitchen must be made from at least 51 percent whole grains. From bagels and buns to pizza dough and pasta, all grains contain most of their germ and bran.
About halfway through the dissection of 300 ripe bananas, the district's baker, Susie Lusk, combines them with sugar and oil in an industrial-sized mixer and flips the switch before seeking out a bag of whole wheat flour.
The banana bread is an occasional menu item she makes for the high school students' breakfast options. The tried and true recipe has persevered through nutritional changes. "They like it," Lusk said with a smile. But that could be because of the one ingredient that goes into everything they make. "We put love in it," she said.