Posted on Tue, June 30, 2009 by Jerusha Klemperer
4 Comments | Categories: Labeling, Policy, School Food,
Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.
Cathy Giannini has been working in the cafeteria in Soquel, California for 21 years. In the world of child nutrition, thats not unusually long (Ive spoken with directors who have been working for over 40 years). Still, the changes she has seen throughout her career are striking.
When Giannini started out, she arrived in the kitchen at 4 am every day to start cooking. She made her own refried beans, her own hamburger meat for tacos and sloppy joes, even her own ranch dressing. She cooked 20 turkeys at a time in an enormous kettle and served the meat with homemade mashed potatoes. A baker in the district made all the breads from scratch as well.
Giannini grew up on a farm in Georgia, where food and home cooking were celebrated. Her father was a cook in the Army, and her two grandmothers were always preparing something in her kitchen. Giannini learned to cook by watching them as they added a pinch of this and a pinch of that to the pot. When she was raising her own children, Giannini always cooked from scratch. She loved it, and she is a firm believer that homemade food is healthier. That way you can control whats in it the amount of sodium and the amount of oil, she said.
Today, Gianninis lunch program is the antithesis of her experience growing up. On a visit a few months ago, students came out for brunch and picked up doughnuts and sausage-studded breakfast pizzas both in a package, both recently out of the freezer. For lunch, they get packaged el eXtremo burritos, corndogs, mini cheeseburgers (on their buns in a plastic package) and Round Table Pizza. Giannini used to spend her days flipping through recipe books. Now she goes to food shows and seeks out the newest processed products.
Giannini pointed to a few reasons for the changes. A lot of it had to do with budget, she said. Labor was (and still is) expensive. Processed food may have cost more than raw ingredients, but in the end it was pricier to hire cooks to bake bread from scratch and mix their own ranch dressing. To meet the budget, its less time to have something pre-cooked than to have the staff cook it from scratch and pack it, she said. Today, Giannini tries to serve as many individually wrapped items as she can, since they decrease her staff time and keep labor costs under control.
The changes also had to do with kids preferences. Sure, Giannini used to make her own three bean salad, her own coleslaw and her own carrot raisin salad. But her students consistently threw the homemade sides into the trash. Today, the Round Table Pizza, the popcorn chicken and the mini cheeseburgers sell well, and they actually end up in childrens stomachs. We try to do the items kids like best, Giannini said. Part of it is just trends with what they want. Theyre used to all this fast food.
Despite her love for homemade food, Giannini isnt too nostalgic for the old days. The work was hard, and shes happy she doesnt have to report to the kitchen at 4 in the morning anymore. Plus, she said, she wouldnt be able to go back to scratch cooking, even if she wanted to. Her district has remodeled over the years, and she doesnt have the facilities to cook in large quantities anymore. One of her elementary schools doesnt even have a kitchen for reheating food; she has to warm everything up at the middle school and rush it over before it cools down.
Everything I did for my kids was from scratch, Giannini told me. Less processed food would probably be better for the students, but weve become a society of convenience. Its what can I get on the table fastest?Ҕ