NPR

One Lunch Lady's Cafeteria Conversion

Kathy Del Tonto (far right) participates in a class that teaches school cafeteria workers how to prepare meals from scratch. (LiveWell Colorado)

Kathy Del Tonto started cooking school food 30 years ago in the Montrose school district at the foot of Colorado's San Juan Mountains. Back then, the cafeteria workers made everything from scratch.

"My first kitchen that I managed was a little country school out south of town, and we made our own ketchup and everything," she says.

But times changed. Families started eating more fast food, and processing companies started offering schools fast-food kinds of choices. The companies would take the food that the U.S. Department of Agriculture gives to schools, turn it into chicken nuggets and other processed items kids want, and then send it to cafeterias — for less than cooking it on site would cost.

Del Tonto went along with it. "By doing processed food you can cut your labor because you don't have to do the hard cooking, or you're just reheating and that kind of thing," she explains.

Increasingly, though, the movement to reduce childhood obesity by improving what kids eat in school has changed the game. It means schools are now required to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables. And there's a movement within the movement that promotes the retro notion of cooking meals from scratch. And that takes a change in the hearts and minds of those behind the lunch line.

Mike Shethar, a chef from Boulder, Colo., wants Del Tonto and all other cafeteria workers onboard. He says with a little training, food staff can cook the food on site.

"I ask them if they cook chicken at home and they're like, 'Of course I cook chicken at home,' and I say, 'Is it difficult?' 'No, I do it all the time,' " says Shethar. "And so I think about transferring the love you give your food at home — why shouldn't it be in the schools?"

Despite the rap that it's more expensive to cook, Shethar believes it can be done for the same price as having the food processors do it. Shethar travels around Colorado with a group called LiveWell Colorado, which teaches districts like Del Tonto's how to switch to more healthful food. Think of it as a boot camp for the lunch lady set.

At first, Del Tonto was not pleased.

"I didn't like somebody coming in and telling me I was doing it wrong. We were giving kids what they loved. We had huge lunch counts; they were happy. Nobody was complaining," she says.

That was two years ago. Del Tonto was in charge of food for all 11 schools in her district, and she had them serving processed foods almost exclusively.

But by the end of the school food training, she was a changed woman.

"When I sat there in that classroom and knew the obesity rate had increased 30 percent, when I saw photos of kids and knowing that that generation doesn't have the life expectancy that their parents [have] — as a mom, that's a shock-and-awe moment," she says. "I remember thinking in my head, if it's not me, who's it gonna be that's going to take that on? And if not now, when?"

Two years later, Del Tonto's schools have switched from mostly processed foods to making 95 percent of what kids eat from scratch.

But it wasn't easy. It required training staff members, educating them about healthful eating, and lots of repetition to get the kids to make the more healthful choices.

Those challenges, and others, are more than most schools want to take on, says Joe Pawlak, a school food industry analyst. It takes money, new equipment and retraining cafeteria staff. Del Tonto's school had financial help.

Del Tonto remains committed to serving nearly all meals in her schools cooked from scratch. She says lunch ladies feel better serving things they've made themselves.

"Just knowing the love and the care we put in that food, hoping that it makes a difference for some of those kids."

This story is a partnership between NPR, Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2014 Colorado Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.cpr.org.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

What kids eat in school is changing. To reduce childhood obesity rates, some schools are trying to serve more fruits and vegetables. Some are cooking more meals from scratch, and that requires finding money to retrain staff and buy new equipment. It also requires changing attitudes of kids and cafeteria workers. Colorado Public Radio's Eric Whitney sent this story about one lunch lady who realized change would have to begin with her.

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: When Kathy Del Tonto started cooking school food 30 years ago in the Montrose School District at the foot of Colorado's San Juan Mountains, they made everything from scratch.

KATHY DEL TONTO: My first kitchen that I managed was a little country school out south of town, and we made our own ketchup and everything.

WHITNEY: Times changed. Families started eating more fast food, and processing companies started offering schools fast-food kinds of choices. Foods that only needed reheating would be cheaper than cooking on site, they said.

TONTO: By doing processed food, you can cut your labor because, you know, you don't have to do the hard cooking, or you're just reheating and that kind of thing.

WHITNEY: Mike Shethar, a chef from Boulder, Colorado, who works with school lunch ladies, doesn't buy that argument. He says with a little training, school food staff can cook their own food without a lot of extra labor, and it's not that hard.

MIKE SHETHAR: You know, I ask them if they cook chicken at home and they're like, of course, I cook chicken at home. And I'm like, is it difficult? No, I do it all the time. And so I think just transferring the love that you give to your food at home, why shouldn't it be in the schools?

WHITNEY: Shethar works for a nonprofit called LiveWell Colorado. It's based in big, urban and relatively liberal Denver. It's not tough to sell school food reform here. But LiveWell sends Shethar around the state teaching rural districts like Kathy Del Tonto's how to switch to healthier food.

SHETHAR: What I want you guys to do is we're just going to trade recipes.

WHITNEY: Del Tonto's boss suggested she go to one of those trainings, but she was pretty skeptical.

TONTO: I didn't like somebody coming in and telling me that I was doing it wrong. We were giving kids what they loved. You know, we had huge lunch counts.

WHITNEY: That was two years ago. Del Tonto was in charge of food for all 11 schools in her district and she had them serving processed foods almost exclusively. But by the end of the school food training, she was a changed woman.

TONTO: When I sat there in that classroom and knew the obesity rate had increased 30 percent, when I saw photos of kids and knowing that that generation doesn't have the life expectancy that their parents, you know, as a mom, that's a shock-and-awe moment. I remember thinking in my head, if it's not me, who is it going to be that's going to take that on? And if not now, when?

WHITNEY: Two years later, Del Tonto's schools have switched from mostly processed foods to making 95 percent of what kids eat from scratch. Have kids noticed?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah, I did. I noticed the difference, especially like in the breads. There's, like, more whole grain. And to me, it didn't change as much, like for better or for worse. I mean, it was still just food.

WHITNEY: Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but no large-scale rebellion either. Scratch cooking advocates say marketing, presentation and repetition are key to getting kids to appreciate the new healthier offerings. Those challenges, and others, are more than most schools want to take on, says Joe Pawlak, a school food industry analyst.

JOE PAWLAK: Is this something that's going to take over a more broad base? I think it's going to be very difficult.

WHITNEY: Difficult because most schools don't have a benefactor to help them make big food changes. The nonprofit in Colorado is spending more than $4 million to help 82 school districts retrain staff and buy new equipment. Big food processors know that's the exception in most states and that schools with fewer resources still want convenient heat-and-serve foods, which Pawlak says are being reformulated to meet new federal nutrition guidelines.

PAWLAK: There are processed foods that are good for you. There are processed foods that have no preservatives, no additives, natural ingredients.

WHITNEY: But Kathy Del Tonto remains committed to serving nearly all scratch-cooked food in her schools. She says lunch ladies feel better serving things they've made themselves.

TONTO: Just knowing the love and the care that we put in that food, hoping that it makes a difference for some of those kids.

WHITNEY: For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Denver.

CORNISH: This story is part of a partnership with NPR, Colorado Public Radio and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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