AURORA | For many adults, school lunch evokes images of gravy-covered meatloaf, greasy pizza and rubbery chicken nuggets. The healthiest or most appealing thing about it might have been the plate it came on.
But for Aurora Public Schools and other districts across the state and country, the focus has been put on providing kids with a nutritious meal, with lunchroom workers trading in microwavable burritos and prepackaged meals for freshly prepared lunches made from scratch. APS itself has been serving scratch-made meals to its kids for about the past six years, said Mona Martinez-Brosh, APS director of nutrition services.
“When I first came here, there was no scratch cooking done whatsoever. We opened up cans, we opened up boxes. We didn’t make any of the items from scratch other than the (district’s) bakery,” Martinez-Brosh said. “Within my second year of the district we started putting those items on the menu, and then in my third year we went full blast with scratch cooking.
“I knew we needed to start going away form all those preservatives and additives and fat,” Martinez-Brosh said.
Where once kitchen staff took frozen burritos out of boxes and placed them into microwaves, now APS works with a supplier to make big batches of beans so cafeteria cooks can make fresh burritos for students, Martinez-Brosh said. Instead of frozen hamburger patties, the district gets raw ground beef, ground turkey and whole chickens for use in its meals.
“I started in the district in 2003 and it’s been a big change,” said Lesli Navarro, the cafeteria manager at Peoria Elementary School. “Before the food was really greasy. The way we cook now is much healthier. Some of the items we used to cook were really, really greasy.”
For kids who were used to their meals not being freshly made, it can be a little weird to see a plate full of food that might have come out of a restaurant’s kitchen instead of a microwavable container.
“When we first started doing (the scratch cooking) and we were serving chicken, students were like, ‘My chicken had a bone in it!,’” Martinez-Brosh said. “You’re right, it does have a bone in it. They were so used to only seeing chicken nuggets.”
The big push to make school lunches healthier started in 2012 with changes instituted by the Obama administration. While stories circulated of kids throwing away meals after the changes went into effect because the taste of the revised meals didn’t sit well with their palates, students got accustomed to the new options and ingredients. The idea of kids tossing their food because it’s too healthy is something that isn’t a real issue anymore, according to food workers.
Martinez-Brosh said part of helping kids make the change was to implement some “stealth health,” such as blending in carrots and sweet potatoes into the sauce used for macaroni and cheese, as well as ensuring the food put out on salad bars at schools was actually appealing.
“I see kids taking more risks now than they did with the salad bar a few years ago. And taking it more as an option. They had to shift from no salad bar option to now I want to say most of the kids here visit the salad bar,” Toner said. “It’s broadening of their palate, broadening of their horizons for what’s available, having more food in its natural form. All of that has been a benefit. It’s become a natural part of what their lunch experiences is as we’ve transitioned.”