Every August the Department of Education holds its Child Nutrition Programs Summer Institute. Upward of 400 school cooks and food managers are spending the week at Spaulding High School in Barre, getting a taste of something new.
For this hands-on class, Harvest Grain Salad is on the menu. Wheat berries and lentils are the main ingredients. It's a far cry from the white bread, white rice and refined starches of years past. And for all schools, it's a sneak preview of what's to come. New USDA rules that went into effect last month establish strict calorie and sodium limits. They require schools to serve larger portions of fruits and vegetables and eventually require 100 percent whole grains.
"They're having to look more creatively at their recipes and menus that they're producing. They have to be creative with their kitchen facilities, which are often lacking because they're required to prepare more foods rather than just the heat and serve approach school were using in the past," said Laura Colgan of the Vt. Education Department.
Many Vermont districts are already on the leading edge when it comes to farm-to-table programs, but officials admit that the new regulations will still be a dramatic change.
"Back in the '60s and '70s we thought we were so smart when we made new kitchens in schools to sort of reduce the size and reduce the complication, so that we didn't have to have necessarily skilled chefs in the kitchen, but people who could run a kitchen efficiently and have warm-and-serve foods," said Abbie Nelson of Vermont Food Education Every Day. "So the home cooking has been a problem because some schools don't even have stoves. For instance this huge kitchen in here has two burners."
As most parents know, cooking the food is only the beginning. Getting kids to eat it-- that's the job of Scott Fay, Essex High School's kitchen manager. And he'll have to come up with names to pitch the lentil salad to skeptical students.
"Off the top of my head-- grain carnival. I don't know, it takes a little thought to come up with these selling points," Fay said.
Fay admits incorporating the new federal changes will be a challenge.
"Not scary, but complicated," he said. "Especially on a big scale with five or six different schools and six different menus."
That's where classes this week in management, finances and marketing come in. A challenging menu ahead for Vermont schools.
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