Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Behind the Ridiculous Headlines to the Real School Lunch Heroes: From Pawtucket to Portland

Over the past two weeks, media coverage of America’s school lunches has – thankfully – gone from worse to wonderful. First, the pizza-as-veggie headlines erupted into ridiculousness after Congress voted on November 17th to make some changes in the proposed rule for new USDA school meal standards.

For the record, “Congress did not declare pizza as a vegetable” (Washington Post). Tomato paste did become one more topic for partisan political bickering In DC, as outlined by the St. Petersburg Times Truth-o-Meter on November 22nd.

Fortunately, “lunch ladies” set the record straight for themselves with a primetime performance on the November 22nd episode of Food Network’s Chopped. As four school nutrition professionals sliced and diced their way to TV fame, America saw, firsthand, the creativity and commitment that go into preparing millions of healthful meals for hungry children every day. It’s no wonder that White House Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, Chef Sam Kass, declared, ”These women are heroes.”

The good news for American kids is that these Chopped Class Acts contestants, led by top prize winner Cheryl Barbara from New Haven, Connecticut, represent thousands of unsung heroes in schools from coast to coast. Here are three of my favorite school districts, representing the real revolution in our school cafeterias – positive stories and photos showing Washington, DC, that America's "Lunch Ladies" are way ahead of you on pizza AND vegetables.

Just northeast of NewHaven, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, Solange Morrisette is the General Manger of the foodservice management
contract with the district (serving 9,000+ kids, 71% free/reduced) and Co-Chair of Rhode Island’s Healthy Schools Coalition. With ten HealthierUS School Challenge Awardwinning schools, Panini stations, and made-from-scratch sweet potato muffins, Pawtucket is dedicated to putting delicious nutrition – locally grown whenever possible – on school trays every day. Everything on this October fruit and veggie bar is Rhode Island grown except the grapes!

As we head to the other coast, let’s make a stopover in Provo, Utah, where director Jenilee McComb oversees an award-winning Child Nutrition Program, serving 14,600+ students with about 45% eligible for free/reduced meals. The Provo Facebook page is a wonderful window into how local schools feed and support local communities, by buying from local farms and orchards, serving Thanksgiving family feasts, and celebrating Veterans’ Day with Heroes Lunch at school. Like many school districts, Provo has brought ideas from local chefs to school – and put some unexpected foods, like Quinoa and Black Bean Salad, on the menu.
Where Interstate 84 nears the Pacific coast, 3,000+ miles from Rhode Island, the large, urban Portland, Oregon, Public School District serves 46,000+ students (45% free/reduced) in 88 schools with 240 foodservice staff. In this ethnically diverse city, the Nutrition Services Department, directed by Gitta Grether-Sweeney, MS, RD, has menu descriptions in 6 languages and serves 11,000 breakfasts, 21,000 lunches, and 2,000 suppers daily – with no a la carte sales. Portland purchases over 30% of its products from local vendors for Farm to School programs like Harvest of the Month and Local Flavors, illustrated on this eye-catching tray with made-from-scratch lasagna and whole grain breadstick, plus Oregon apples, pears, greens, pasta, and more. With a strong commitment to school gardens and nutrition education, Portland is a prime example of excellence in school nutrition.

From sea to shining sea, three very different districts doing what’s right for kids’ nutrition every school day – and through the summer months as well. Breakfast, lunch, and sometimes supper, the everyday heroes in school cafeterias are helping our children to make smart choices for strong bodies and sharp brains. That’s what should make the headlines in DC – and every other American community.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

PIZZA-ON-THE-BRAIN (and on the grill)

The media has recently been obsessed with the pizza is schools - but they have gotten the story all wrong. There Are PLENTY of pizza veggies in schools - on top of pizzas (like the local tomatoes in this photo from Foster-Glocester High School in Rhode Island), as side dishes (summer squash, zucchini, green/red peppers, carrots, and onion here), and incredible varieties on salad bars.

Pizza at school us so much more than the inside-the-beltway food fight would have you believe! Check out the amazing pizzas being served from coast to coast on School Meals That Rock.

For at home treats, I heartily recommend pizza-on-the-grill. From much trial and error (uncooked, burnt-to-a-crisp, and everything in between), here’s what I have learned grilling pizza.
  • Get well organized beforehand. Once things get cooking, you need to keep the pizza assembly line moving steadily while the grill is hot. (I generally save my wine to drink with the pizza.)
  • Aim for a medium-hot grill with coals (heat) well-spaced underneath the cooking area. Too hot, you’ll have a burnt crust, too cold and nothing will melt on the top. You can put the crust directly on the grill or, as I prefer, use a metal pizza pan with holes.
  • Go minimalist with toppings. This is not the place for your favorite man-cave, five-meat, four-cheese pizza recipe. If you load up the toppings, the heat will have trouble getting through to melt the flavors together.
  • Make it a group effort. Actually, very little effort is required when many hands are involved. Guests and family can help chop and prepare toppings. Then, as the crusts come off their first round on the grill, folks can create their own unique and flavorful combinations.

  1. Prepare dough. Roll out smallish (1-2 person) pizzas that are thinner in the center and have a small rim around the edge.
  2. Grill crust on one side until golden brown. Time required may be as little as 5 minutes, depending on the temperature of the grill. Burst any dough bubbles that rise on the top of crust.
  3. Flip pizza and add sauce and toppings on the cooked side of the crust.
  4. Place uncooked side of pizza on grill; cover and cook until ingredients are heated throughout and bottom crust is golden. Cheese should melt but may not bubble as it would in oven.
  5. Remove from grill; let cool for a minute or two on a cutting board or counter top. Slice and serve with a tossed baby green salad, your favorite summer wine or ale, and fruit for dessert.

  • Grill
  • Metal pizza pan with holes. While I always use a pizza stone in the oven, I find that they don’t get hot enough on a charcoal grill.
  • Nice big spatula (for moving pizza around)
  • Plenty of cutting boards or counter space (to cool and cut pizzas on)
  • Rolling pizza cutter (easier than a knife)


  • Use your favorite pizza dough recipe. Make certain that it can be rolled (or stretched) to be relatively thin so it can cook quickly.
  • I let my bread machine do the kneading (so that I can take an afternoon walk). I use high-gluten bread flour and a simple recipe that includes olive oil and honey, adapted from Laura Werlin’s All-American Wine and Cheese Book (which also is the basis for one of my fav topping combos, noted below).
  • Go lightly with sauce, if you use any at all. Since the heat is mostly below the pizza, too much sauce can make the crust soggy and keep the other ingredients from heating up nicely. Instead of sauce, brush crust lightly with olive oil, flavored if you like. Instead of plain tomato sauce, consider a thin layer of pesto or spicy BBQ.
  • I favor light, local, fresh ingredients in unusual combinations. The combo that I love from Werlin’s book is Gruyere, wild mushrooms, and arugula (any tender green could be used). The mushrooms are drizzled with olive oil and lightly roasted in the oven or on the grill. The arugula is tossed with fresh lemon juice and olive oil; then placed on the fully cooked pizza.
  • Other delicious options: leftover Thanksgiving turkey (!!), grilled chicken, salmon, sausages, vegetables (asparagus to zucchini) and/or fruit (think pineapple) cooked just prior to the pizza. For cheese, think beyond the typical pizza blend to Asiago, blue, Chevre, feta, Gouda, Pecorino, and Swiss.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


I have breakfast on the brain. Not only am I going to New Mexico as a speaker at their School Breakfast Summit on Tuesday, but I also saw beautiful breakfasts in the Alma Public Schools last week.

Breakfast is essential for success at school (and also very important for how adults perform at work). Kids who regularly eat breakfast tend to have a greater ability to focus on tasks, better classroom behavior, and improved test scores.

When you skip breakfast, your brain does not have the fuel it needs to learn new information or concentrate on complex tasks. If your family’s morning schedule is sometimes too complicated for a sit-down breakfast, plan to get one on-the-go.


When you need breakfast on the run, a little planning can save both time and money. By planning ahead, you can skip the fast food drive-thru or convenience store stop - and make sure that your family has the high-octane nutrition they need to succeed.

  • Breakfast in the car: Bring breakfast from home for better nutrition and less money. While not all breakfast foods travel well, there are plenty of delicious options.
  • Breakfast at school: Many schools have great breakfast programs. Cost is minimal (free for eligible families) and the convenience is awesome. Ask about it at your school.
  • Breakfast at your desk: A mid-AM desk-fast may be an option for adults and teens who don’t like to eat first thing. Plan to use items that travel well in a backpack.


  • Whole grains: Whole grains are the best AM choices for high octane carbohydrate energy. Easy-to-carry choices include: multi-grain bagels, oatmeal-fruit muffins, trail mix made with a whole grain cold cereal, or a favorite sandwich on whole grain bread.
  • Calcium-rich foods and drinks: Most young people (and many adults) are not meeting calcium needs. Low-fat/fat-free dairy foods in AM (milk, yogurt, and cheese) can provide one of your 3-Every-Day. String cheese is perfect for eating on the run.
  • Colorful fruits: While veggies are for breakfast too, most of us are more likely to eat fruit in the AM. Fortunately, fruit - the original fast food - travels well, esp. dried fruit (by itself or in trail mix) and pre-sliced (for convenience) apples, pears, and oranges.


You can have a power breakfast anywhere -- at home, in the car, at school, or even at your desk. The key is to have a balanced breakfast every day, so that your brain is properly fueled for the learning and living.