Scratch-Cooking Returning to Palo Alto Schools | The Food Party! | Laura Stec | Mountain View Online |

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By Laura Stec

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About this blog: I've been attracted to food for good and bad reasons for many years. From eating disorder to east coast culinary school, food has been my passion, profession & nemesis. I've been a sugar addict, a 17-year vegetarian, a food and en...  (More)

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Scratch-Cooking Returning to Palo Alto Schools

Uploaded: Sep 15, 2022
Anyone out there remember the cafeteria ladies making school lunch? Readers over 50 years (maybe even 40?) might recall this daily ritual with long-lost nostalgia. In the day, my siblings and I brought lunch from home to my Detroit-area catholic school, but fellow students bought lunch every day (fish, spaghetti, sandwiches, etc.). Foods were freshly prepared on site, quite a novel approach to today’s standard fare - reheated frozen meals from the oven.

Thank goodness the only thing constant is change. And that history repeats itself. After being awarded a Kitchen Infrastructure Equipment and Training Grant for the 2022 - 2023 school year, Alva Spence, Palo Alto’s Unified Nutrition Services Director (PAUSD), has finally gotten a chance to wish and reimagine the return of scratch-cooking into her district.

“There is much more interest from students and parents in fresh, flavor-filled scratch entrees and plant-forward options these days.” said Spence. “Ethnic flavors and bowls are very popular too.”

Spence decided to use the district’s staff development days on this new vision, and I jumped at the offer to serve alongside as Chef Instructor for the program. For our first training day this past August, we transformed Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School (JLS) kitchen into Iron Chef-Palo Alto - a program testing new recipes (many plant-forward) with the goal of implementing at least 10 new dishes into elementary, middle and high school menus. Another goal of the program is to showcase unique skills and creativity of the staff. Palo Alto’s diverse employee pool offers culinary expertise from a variety of cultures - a perfect match for expanding culinary trends and student preferences.

Now let’s acknowledge giving the lunch program an updo is no small effort. School kitchens are a shell of their former selves. Most lack stoves, burners and other tools, especially the knives, are old and dull. Part of the grant purchased new equipment including 10 induction burners – fulfilling another all-the-rage trend in culinary. Compared to gas and electric, induction cooking is faster, safer for humans and better for the environment (no flame or polluting off-gases are created in the process). Change not only offers a chance at more plant-forward foods, it helps the schools green-up with carbon-reducing technology to fit popular demands.

Iron Chef-Palo Alto broke staff up into 10 teams of 3. Cooks had 2.5 hours to prepare 30 new scratch dishes (plant-based, vegetarian, and meat).

Each group presented their dishes, then everyone tasted, ranked and critiqued the entrees.

Inspired by possibilities, we all left excited about what comes next.

Here’s the Top Ten winners from our first training day (in no particular order): Chicken Pesto Sandwich, Beef & Broccoli Stir Fry, Street Tacos

Black Bean and Corn Salad

Quinoa Mango Salad

Chicken Salad Wrap with Fruit

Tofu Lo Mein

Potato Ragda Bowl

Lentil Crumble Nachos

and Black Bean Empanadas

Tasting Day is planned for the next staff development day in October, an opportunity to showcase the Top Ten entrees and salads chosen in August.

“We want to give students, staff, and parents an opportunity to sample these items,” says Spence. “We would love to incorporate some of the recipes into this school year, but it’s important to hear student reaction and feedback first.”

Stay tuned for more developments around this inspirational effort.
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Posted by Joy, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Sep 15, 2022 at 9:43 pm

Joy is a registered user.

Thanks to Alva Spence and the whole PAUSD food services staff who have not only increased the offerings of brunch and lunch to incrementally more students on a daily basis but to also thinking out of the box on ways to bring new menu items that expand culinary tastes!

Posted by Jason Carswell, a resident of Downtown North,
on Sep 17, 2022 at 9:27 am

Jason Carswell is a registered user.

One can never go wrong with a well-prepared pizza or cheeseburger.

Many high schoolers are junk-food junkies and if I had a nickel for every kid I've seen during off-campus lunchtime hours carrying a bag of Doritos and a 32 oz. bottle of Gatorade, I'd be a wealthy man.

Children and adolescents for the most part do not adhere to adult-themed menus and should not be forced to do so by restricting certain menu choices including the three basic food groups: fat, sugar, and salt unless a restricted food regimen has been prescribed by their pediatrician to combat an existing condition of obesity.

Most healthy and active kids can easily burn-off empty calories and have access to daily multi-vitamins.

Posted by MyFeelz, a resident of another community,
on Sep 22, 2022 at 2:35 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

I need to do a planet verification on Jason C up there ^^^ "Most healthy and active kids can easily burn-off empty calories and have access to daily multi-vitamins." EARTH TO JASON -- more and more kids these days have borderline type ii diabetes due to an unbalanced diet, and I don't know of one kid who takes a daily multi-vitamin. You must have different kinds of kids on the planet where you live.

Scratch cooking doesn't need to compete with any of the cable cooking shows, but should teach the fundamentals of how to handle a stove and oven to make unprocessed foods without burning down the house.

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