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This school puts nutrition first with made-from-scratch lunches

October 10, 2018

There’s just something so comforting about food that’s made from scratch. As moms across generations have said, homemade food has a little something extra in it called love.

That love can be found in the food preparation for Armstrong School District. For several years the school food services employees have been preparing food from scratch for the students.

Home cooking

Food service workers in Armstrong schools begin food preparations for breakfast and lunch in the morning before students arrive. Most of the food prepared in the morning will be consumed that day, although some recipes require extra prep time.

LuAnn Fee, director of food and nutrition services for Armstrong schools, says the turn toward homemade cooking in the schools was a response to changes in federal nutrition guidelines. The new standards reflect concerns about the levels of sodium and amounts of fat that can be found in many processed foods. Fee began thinking of ways the district could meet the requirements while staying within budget. Because much of the food the district receives is raw, such as ground beef and vegetables, Lee says the idea of preparing food from scratch took root.

The first type of food that came to mind for Fee was soup, however, many soup recipes are heavy on salt, which means the recipe runs the chance of not meeting the federal guidelines for sodium. Fee and her coworkers experimented with different herbs and spices to add flavor to their soups to compensate what was somewhat lost because of restrictions on fat and sodium.

“When you take away fat and sodium you do lose some flavor,” Fee says. “We’ve had to find ways to meet the guidelines and make it taste good.”

That persistence paid off. Over the course of the school year students in the Armstrong School District ate about 12 different soups.

Making the effort

Scratch cooking is not only taking place in Armstrong. Fee notes numerous districts in Pennsylvania and across the country have similar programs, and Pennsylvania Department of Education has assisted schools that want to offer the them. The education department sent trained chefs to schools to teach them how to make homemade foods for large groups of people, and also provided cookbooks filled with recipes that meet the required guidelines.

It’s not just soups that are on the made-from-scratch menu. Fee says kitchen staff also includes homemade spaghetti sauce and shepherd’s pie.

Breakfast in the district features chicken, biscuits and yogurt parfaits. Next school year the district intends to offer a homemade breakfast bowl, which should be a popular choice.

Healthy cost

When the federal food guidelines changed, Fee says the district noticed a drop off in the number of students who bought their meals at school. She speculates the decline in participation was due to some of the immediate offerings that didn’t appeal to the students. Now though, since the district began to serve the fresh-made foods, Fee says many of those students have begun to eat the prepared foods again. That, she notes, is a good thing, because for some of the students, the meals they eat at school may be the only complete meals they get the entire day. She adds that it’s not unusual to hear students talk about eating beef jerky and drinking a soda for breakfast.

While it might seem more expensive for a school district to make food from scratch, Fee says her department has not had to adjust its budgets. Although the process is more labor intensive, the food and nutrition employees have been able to handle the workload without adjusting for labor costs. Fee also reiterates that the foods they receive through U.S. Department of Agriculture grants are in raw form, so they can be more flexible in what they prepare.

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