Tempe schools experiment with fresh, healthy lunch items

Tempe Elementary School District students will soon be seeing a healthy, fresh change to their school lunches as the district works with a chef to introduce different foods into the lunch rotation.

"This is heaven," fifth-grader Evelyn Ayala told her friends with her eyes wide as she bit into a chicken quesadilla.

After tasting her quesadilla, 10-year-old Yvanna Granillo added, "It's delicious. I want to eat it every day. It has more flavor, it's sweeter and more flavorful."

The quesadilla was just one of a number of options being sampled by Laird fourth- and fifth-graders last Thursday. Beans, pita and hummus, and apple cherry and barley salad also headlined the experimental lunch.

"Our goal is to build it slowly," said Linda Rider, the director of nutritional services. "Start small with some side dishes and blend with a few of their favorite things."

The school lunches have always been healthy, she said. But the district hopes to expose the students to new flavors and add more fresh foods.

It's long been a project to introduce school children to better eating habits for Chef Tom French, the Experience Food Project founder and director, who was responsible for helping the kitchens adapt.

The Experience Food Project, originating in Washington, focuses on impacting the nutrition of school meal programs. It looks to improve the quality and content of school lunches by working with chefs and local farmers, as well as school kitchen staff.

"Schools are obviously a place to start if you wanted to affect change. There's a big market there," French said. "We're keeping it simple with fresh, affordable foods. And exposing them to different kinds of foods, their palates are constantly changing."

The changes will include adapting what the school already receives from the United States Department of Agriculture through the National School Lunch Program.

"There's a lot of care and attention going into it," he said. "Eating is about nurturing and creating an atmosphere."

While the salsa used in the quesadillas came from the program, the kitchen staff adapted it to include fresh herbs, French said.

"We're not claiming it's authentic, but we are claiming it's fresh," he said with a laugh.

In the words of 11-year-old Marco Lopez, he liked it "because it just tasted better."

It's a change that not only benefits students, but also all the kitchen staff who prepare and serve the food, French said.

"This way, they don't feel like they're shoveling chicken nuggets onto a tray," he said.

During the training, French said the kitchen staff told stories about family recipes and talked about the food they were preparing.

"It's not harder; it's just a new thing," said Jey Young, the district's central kitchen manager. "It's something that's the way of the future."

Part of this has been a gradual change to healthier school lunches, Young said. Schools went through a transition from fried food to baked foods and now to more fresh and raw foods.

"This is a marathon, not a sprint," French said about the current changes in the Tempe schools. "There will be some changes, but we're not going to take away their favorite foods."

Part of the new nutritional guidelines means working grains like barley into the lunches, French said. Mixed with apples and dried cherries, which are a commodities food, it can create something both nutritional and delicious, he said.

"We eat with our eyes," French said.

The apple cherry and barley salad is a lot like eating skittles, but fresh, he said.

"We do give kids a lot of options and pizza is still on the menu," he said. "We've got to find the middle ground. The worst thing we could do is take off the things they like and replace them with the unfamiliar."

And part of the changes at the school mean making lunches that teachers and staff actually want to eat, French said. It's about creating healthy options that look appealing to adults as well.

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