I recently posted a simple question on Facebook: What are some of your favorite (or not so favorite) memories of school hot lunch?
I expected there to be lots of complaints about cold hot dogs and watery vegetables, but surprisingly, the majority of people waxed poetic about mock pizzas. Remember those? They were English muffins topped with seasoned ground beef (supposedly, anyway) and topped with orange cheese.
Most of the standard school lunches have changed dramatically over the years. In most schools, mock pizzas are a thing of the past, as are breaded veal patties with whipped potatoes and other memorable oldies-but-goodies.
In today's all-natural, organic, farm-to-table, non-GMO society, the directors of area school lunch programs certainly have their work cut out for them. This past year, Fairfield schools sought out the expertise of John Turenne, founder and president of Sustainable Food Systems, a consulting service that helps bring nutritious -- and tasty -- foods to schools, companies and other large groups.
"I was hired in the beginning of the school year to focus on four new goals," Turenne said.
Working in conjunction with a parent group and the school food service, the goals were to provide tastier, higher quality meals; to train the existing staff; to improve communications between the food service and students and parents; and to increase participation in the school lunch program.
That's quite a huge undertaking for something that is often the butt of jokes. (How many times have you watched a movie where they portray a hot lunch at school as a big scoop of gray, goopy mush?)
Turenne said his job was made a little easier because the Fairfield menus already started off on a positive note.
"In Fairfield, they had taken steps to get rid of things like chicken nuggets," he said.
In addition, they were already making their own granola from scratch.
There were two pilot schools chosen for the program -- Roger Ludlowe Middle School and McKinley Elementary School. Turenne used these schools as initial tests to see the capacity of the staff and to look at the equipment. From there, he did boot camp-like training sessions with the staff and did tastings with the children.
"When I tell them that I worked with the first lady and that I've been on TV, that gets them up and listening," Turenne said.
He gave the example of kale chips. When he set them out for sampling, he heard several kids say, "Oh, my mom makes those." They wouldn't try them at home, but because these were made by "Chef John," they were willing to give them a shot.
"We try to teach them the mantra, `School food is good food and good food is cool
food,' " Turenne said.
So what has taken the place of the beloved mock pizza? Well, pizza is still on the menu, but this time it starts with a whole-grain crust and is topped with a five-vegetable tomato sauce.
"The sauce uses roasted vegetables, so it's a stealth way of getting extra vegetables in there," Turenne said.
The same sauce is also used in beefy nachos, which include pureed beans, salsa and real cheese (none of that fake orange stuff). Another big winner is "spicy fat fries."
"Nothing is deep-fried in the schools," Turenne said. "But rather than those frozen fries that are covered in oil, we use potatoes that are tossed in spices and roasted at high heat."
In order to educate families, the school lunch menus are posted online, and it's indicated if meals are cooked from scratch, are vegetarian and contain whole grains.
"Sometimes the school food industry gets a bad rap," Turenne said. "Sometimes it's warranted and sometimes it's not. The good news is that, once again, things are fresh. It's like we're going back to the future in cooking."
For more information about John Turenne and Sustainable Food Systems, visit www.sustainablefoodsystems.com