As you know, I’ve been trying to eat only home-cooked food this month, but last week, I made an exception.
I stopped by Sanchez Elementary near downtown for a salad. Not just any salad, but one of the entree salads that the school now serves twice a week. The salad they were serving that day was a winter harvest salad with roasted sweet potatoes, cauliflower and carrots, pepitas, feta, homemade croutons and chicken. Students get to pick which ingredients they want and which kind of dressing, just like in a Chipotle or similar restaurant.
Some of the produce came from Johnson’s Backyard Garden, which currently sells the district between 800 and 1000 pounds of sweet potatoes a week, as well as broccoli and watermelon radishes.
That’s a pretty great meal, right? I certainly thought so, and so did the Sanchez students who went after me in line to get their own salads for lunch.
Sanchez is one of 114 AISD schools that has seriously stepped up its school lunch game in the past few years. In today’s food section, you can read about Anneliese Tanner, who took the helm of the food services department with the district about 18 months ago. She came from finance industry, but she also has a degree in food policy from NYU, so she knows a thing or two about just how complicated — socially, politically, culturally, financially — school food can be.
I’d been hearing Anneliese’s name from various people ever since she started, and it was powerful to finally sit down with her to hear about her vision for what is possible with the school food program here. She’s already implemented Breakfast in the Classroom, an initiative I wrote about last fall when it came to my sons’ school, and now they are finishing this salad bar expansion that will put the entree salads served at Sanchez in all of the district’s elementary schools. Next, they’ll add them to middle and high schools.
But salad bars and breakfasts are just the beginning. Tanner is determined to increase how much money the department spends in the local economy. Right now, nearly 50 percent of her budget is spent in Central Texas, and her goal is to boost that to 65 percent, with 25 percent of the overall spending on organics.
One of the biggest surprises was just how far they have come to eliminate what Life Time Foundation calls the Harmful 7. All but two of the chicken products served in AISD schools right now come from antibiotic-free chicken. Next year, they’ll probably be serving hamburgers made with grassfed beef. Maybe even organic milk.
These aren’t pie-in-the-sky dreams; Tanner’s team is putting together the requests for proposals for next year’s food purchases, and it includes the kind of food you’d find at a farmers’ market or Whole Foods: baked goods made with unbleached flour and no preservatives, meat raised without hormones or antibiotics, juice without any artificial sweeteners or high fructose corn syrup, little containers of fruit without added color or flavors.
But the question about whether students will eat the salads — or the banh mi sandwiches or the Moroccan chicken or the Frito pie made with lentils — is a big one on parents’ (and taxpayer) minds.
It’s also on Tanner’s.
“Kids are having moments of discovery, and they are never going to learn to like it if we don’t serve it,” Tanner says. “If a kid says, ‘What are migas?’ this is exactly why we have migas on the menu. Now this kid is going to know what they are.”
I hope you’ll take a minute to read this story today. There are so many misconceptions about school lunches, and that stigma is one of the biggest hurdles for food service directors like Tanner, whose focus is squarely on the future, not the goopy gloppy mystery meat of the past.
In fact, Jake Harris, one of my colleagues on the web desk, reached out to the newsroom to gather recollections of school food growing up for this blog post.
The responses are hilarious, terrifying and, let’s be honest, familiar.
My best/worst school food memory is eating a 50-cent bag of greasy French fries for lunch, and spending the other 50 cents on Starbusts from the vending machine.
You can’t even find a fryer in Texas schools today.
Well, used to. Last summer, Ag Commissioner Sid Miller lifted the ban on fryers and sodas. Tanner says ain’t no way they are coming back to Austin schools. At least not under her watch.