For the past six weeks, millions of viewers have watched in horror as British chef Jamie Oliver infiltrated schools in Huntington, W.Va., to expose America's dirty school lunch secrets for the ABC series "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution."
He found elementary kids who couldn't tell a tomato from a potato, a high school student so overweight that she'd been told she has just seven years to live and crusty cooks who are as resistant to change as the picky eaters they serve. In typical reality show fashion, Oliver faced the Goliaths, from stubborn students, staff and administrators to a snarly radio jock, and in just six short weeks, defeated them with a roasted chicken thigh in hand.
Now that we've seen what Oliver's "revolution" looks like, how do Austin's own attempts to improve school food compare?
20 years in the making
"Our revolution started a long time ago," says Chris Carrillo-Spano, director of nutrition and food services for Austin Independent School District, over lunch last week at Austin High School that would make even Oliver forget that he was eating in a school cafeteria: sandwiches made with homemade rosemary focaccia bread, from-scratch chicken enchiladas and lightly steamed fresh broccoli served on whole wheat, Omega-3 enriched noodles.
Unlike Oliver's show, school districts don't go from serving mystery meat to homemade hummus overnight. Carrillo-Spano says that Austin schools have been working for more than 20 years to improve the quality of food while still meeting federal nutritional standards and staying on budget.
One of the biggest changes happened five years ago when the head of food services hired Steven Burke, an Austin Community College culinary graduate who would become the district's first chef.
The clean-shaven Burke, 31, with his tightly cropped black curls and eager grin, could be mistaken for one of Austin High's students if it weren't for the white chef's coat and pants decorated with red, yellow and green peppers he wore while he gave a tour of the school's kitchen last week.
"I didn't know anything about this kind of cooking," says Burke, who worked with catering companies and at Green Pastures restaurant before Austin High.
But in five years, he seems to have mastered a balancing act that every school district faces: how to make the best food possible, with limited funds available, that kids will eat and that meets strict nutritional requirements set by the government.
Burke trains staff at schools of every level throughout the district, works with students in focus groups and develops new recipes for the high school that eventually trickle down to middle and elementary schools. "We're not the Four Seasons, but we're not that bad," he says, as he walks past trays of food that look nothing like the mushy, indistinguishable dishes most people associate with school cafeterias. Burke, one of just a handful of district chefs in the state, often travels to other school districts to explain how he's been able to work with the food services department to improve the cafeteria environment.
One of the first big changes he made was separating the foods you'd find on a fast-food menu from the nutritionally dense and diverse dishes the kitchen staff often prepares from scratch, such as lasagna and tortilla soup. "The number of fries we served went down just by changing up the lines," he says. "It's about changing the perception of cafeteria food." If the food looks good, students will eat it, he says.
But no matter what creative dishes Burke conjures up, some students will refuse to eat anything but pizza, burgers and fries. "Fast food is the standard we are judged by," Carrillo-Spano says. "We're giving them what they are used to but giving them a healthy version of it." In every district school, pizza crust is made with white whole-wheat flour, hamburgers are made with lean ground beef and served on whole-wheat buns, and fries are oven-roasted.
"Stealth health," as Burke calls it, is especially useful in elementary schools where kids can be even less open-minded about trying new things. Young kids like easily identifiable foods, Carrillo-Spano says, so the menu options, while still healthy, are much more simple. Only a few popular dishes like hamburgers, hot dogs made with turkey meat, white-meat chicken tenders and spaghetti and meatballs repeat more than once a month. All the schools serve the same menu, depending on campus level. (You can view a month's worth of meals for elementary, middle and high schools, as well as the nutritional information, at austinisd.org/schools/menus.)
In "Food Revolution," the show's editors lead us to believe that hardly any of the food is made from raw, whole ingredients. "We've been handling raw beef and chicken forever," Burke says, noting that all but just a few vegetables are fresh instead of frozen or canned.
One battle the Austin district is not waging is against flavored milk. In several episodes of "Food Revolution," Oliver made a point to remove flavored milk from the elementary cafeteria, saying that flavored milk has as much sugar as a soda. June Hayman, the Austin district's top nutritionist, cited data from the National Dairy Council that points out that chocolate and strawberry milk have 4 teaspoons of added sugar per 8-ounce serving, and soda has 7 teaspoons of sugar in the same portion. Because most kids don't get enough calcium and vitamins found in milk anyway, school districts, including Austin's, are willing to serve flavored milk if it means kids are more likely to drink it. "It isn't nutrition if it isn't eaten," Hayman says.
Yvonne Seiders, assistant director of nutrition and food services, says it's frustrating when people assume that because they serve meals that cost less than $1.25 to make that kids are being served the same processed foods week after week. "You can (serve healthy food) and still stay in the black," Seiders says. (Elementary students who pay full price for lunch pay $2.10, and middle and high school student lunches cost $2.25. Seiders says the difference between what it costs to make the meal and what students pay covers cafeteria expenses and labor.)
Every five years, Congress re-evaluates the Child Nutrition Act, which determines school food policy and funding. The proposed reauthorization that legislators are currently considering would give schools an extra six cents per meal to work with. It's far less than the amount proposed by President Barack Obama and many school food advocates, but "believe it or not, that (six cents) would help tremendously," Seiders says.
The problem is "a lot of people who criticize school lunches haven't been in a school for years," says Hayman, the district nutritionist. Childhood obesity has put a spotlight on school food, but if a student were to eat a school lunch every day of the school year, that's less than 15 percent of the meals they eat in an entire year. If students are struggling with weight issues, it's easy to blame the schools, but the vast majority of the meals a student eats are at home or in a restaurant.
Eat more veggies
At Bridge Point Elementary School, the largest elementary school in the Eanes school district west of Austin, principal Brad Wirht is taking a "less technical and more attitudinal" approach to improving students' diets. "We all do things better when we choose," Wirht says, so he's made teaching kids how and why they should make healthy food choices a top priority.
Wirht has teamed up with Kelly Corbet, a parent and founder of the health education website SmartFoods-HealthyKids.com to create fun projects to get young kids excited about eating vegetables and other healthy food at lunch instead of throwing them in the trash.
In January, fifth-graders spearheaded a schoolwide competition to see which classroom consumed the most vegetables during lunch and snack time. The students turned it into a math project by gathering data each day and creating charts, spreadsheets and Power Point presentations with their findings. Wirht says that by the end of the month, even self-professed vegetable haters were trying fresh veggies.
At a lunch last week, kids could choose from hot dogs, baked potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, corn bread, broccoli, mozzarella sticks and soup, which included a new corn poblano chowder that the head of the cafeteria was eager to debut.
Corbet, who regularly posts information for parents on healthy eating on the school's website , recently filmed dozens of groups of students performing "veggie raps" where students of every grade level rapped lyrics they'd written to go with popular songs. (Only elementary school students would think to rhyme "broccoli" with "Monopoly.") As Wirht watched some of the videos in his office last week, he pointed out that the kids performing weren't just the overachievers looking for a pat on the back. "Kids who cause problems don't own much, but they owned this," Wirht says.
Winning over students can be easier than overhauling a cafeteria. "Even with the most wholesome thing you can do, people will be resistant to change," Wirht says. Parents don't want to be told that they can't bring in a cookie cake for a kids' birthday or that chips aren't allowed in lunches brought from home.
Corbet says it's not about telling kids what they can't eat. "Our philosophy is, 'Don't yuk someone else's yum,' " she says.
Austin school district chef Steven Burke has developed more than 125 recipes, including a handful of vegetarian dishes such as black bean burgers and hummus that are being served in area schools.
Black Bean Burgers
3/4 cup onion, finely chopped
1 Tbsp. oil
3 cups black beans, undrained
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 rolled oats
1 tsp. garlic powder
1/4 tsp. chipotle powder (optional)
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
6 whole-wheat buns
Sauté onions in the oil until translucent. Cool onions and reserve. In a bowl, mash beans and then mix in the rest of the ingredients. Form patties with your hands and bake in an oven at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes. Serve on a whole-wheat bun.
1 can chickpeas/garbanzo beans
1/2 cup olive oil
1 Tbsp. garlic powder
1/3 cup lemon juice
1 tsp. chipotle powder
1 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. salt
Drain liquid from chickpeas and reserve liquid. Combine chickpeas and the rest of the ingredients in a blender and pulse to combine, adding reserve liquid to reach desired consistency. (You also can put them in a bowl and use an immersion blender.) Serve with baked tortilla strips.
- Steven Burke, AISD chef