A Bright Idea—Go Old School

Step back four decades to 1967, when Dover High School’s kitchen was brand spanking new, cranking out fish sticks and French fries like nobody’s business. Ten years ago, milk was delivered in crates from Scrouton’s Dairy farm in Dover and kitchen compost was held for a local pig farmer to come pick up the loot. The latter is no longer the case, but the 40 year old equipment still grinds away, and the frozen processed food still stands. The funky rose colored doors on the industrial fridge and freezer caught my eye. An interesting color pairing, the walls are tiled sunflower yellow. The entire kitchen is sparkly clean, a cheery space with plenty of room and equipment to cook, and I mean really cook.

Our group tour of Dover High School’s kitchen was scheduled to give volunteer members of the Dining Facilities Council a sense of what Food Service Director Mark Covell has to work with. The majority of the district’s food is prepared in this kitchen and then trucked to the middle and three elementary schools. The district has its own small truck to maneuver the goods.

Mark’s budget is comprised solely of school breakfast and lunch sales. To put this into perspective, high school and middle school breakfast is priced at $1.25 and lunch is $2.25. An elementary school breakfast is also $1.25, lunch is $1.75. His budget covers food, kitchen equipment purchases and repairs, which includes the dishwashers; purchase of the transportation truck, maintenance and fuel costs; and staffing all five schools.

Mark also receives a small amount from the government for free, reduced and paid meals; the highest reimbursement is for free and the lowest for paid. For twelve years he’s been ending the school year in the black, but he feels that this year might be an exception with rising food cost due to higher fuel prices. This past week he bought a case of celery for over $40; a week ago the same amount cost $14.

The cafeteria was bustling with activity upon arrival at 10am. The space is used for study hall throughout the day. It was worth the trip to gawk. We can’t do much to improve the system, if we don’t have a grasp of the day-to-day operations.

Along with the committee members, Mark agrees that goals need to be established and they must be realistic. Institutional food service management has barriers, like increased governmental regulation that you don’t have with a restaurant.

Mark added, “I think it is important to convey a positive note in regard to where we are today as compared to just five to six years ago. The district, my staff and numerous others have worked very hard to get to this point. Is it perfect? No, but it is a 100 percent improvement over where we were.”

Four parent volunteers attended and we were all curious to see the dimensions of the walk-in freezer and refrigerator, as well as the dry storage area. One of our many initial ideas is to find a local farm willing and able to sell wholesale produce like green beans at the peak of ripeness that volunteers can then blanch and freeze one day over the summer for use in the upcoming school year. To do this, we need equipment and freezer storage space.

Although we knew what to expect, I think our greatest let down was not the actual size of the storage spaces, but rather what was using it up—box upon box and stacked cans of processed, ready to serve food product. Enriched white bread, Chef Boyardee ravioli and frozen chicken patties anyone? I asked if organic, canned products and other bulk foods could be purchased over conventional, and as expected, Mark confirmed they are way too pricey and hard to get through his mainstream distributers.

What makes it onto a 15 year old’s lunch tray? Veggies, veggies, veggies… the kids bopping through the line chose vegetables like sliced raw green pepper and broccoli florets to accompany their hamburger taco meat and orange goo (better known as Cheese Wiz-type sauce). The salad was pretty sad, your typical iceberg lettuce with orange and purple flecks of carrot and red cabbage. We asked Mark why not leafy greens? The darker green salad mixes are tough to purchase at an affordable price, but he does buy whole leaf spinach and heads of romaine when he can.

The federal government’s commodity program isn’t a reliable source of food. The random food items that are shipped are not enough to ease Mark’s tight budget. Projected food may or may not arrive and the quality of food is often subpar.

In other areas of the high school café, we spotted bagels, soft pretzels, and bagged snack items like chips hanging for sale. Mark mentioned that homemade soups are an option for the kids, and there is generally one prepared from scratch hot item on the menu each day. The kitchen staff experiments with the hot item—catering to his clientele’s sophomoric taste.

A little unnerving, the kids only get 25 minutes for lunch. Back in the day when I attended high school, we had an entire period, which was 55 minutes. Apparently one of the kitchen’s battles is getting the food to the kids fast enough so that they have time to eat. 

There is a trickle-down effect taking place in the cafeterias. The high school kids get the best selection of food, middle and elementary schools, not so much. This again, is a result of the short lunch period. It is tough for the younger students to make a choice with a large variety, so their choices are limited.

One of the parents was also concerned with Styrofoam trays being used for the lower grade levels. She asked if thick paper or even recyclable or reusable plastic could be used. Again, price is the issue. The district can’t afford a sustainable solution. All of the kitchens have dish machines, but the cost to staff a dishwasher and to buy the chemical solution to run the machines is far too much.

Our group of volunteers has a lot to digest, and despite all of the grand ideas that we have to improve the food and sustainability practices of the district, we all agree that we must stay positive and find a focus if we want to see change. We are eager to seek grant money or other donations if that is what it takes to put tasty, nutritious, real food on the tables. Cost continues to be at the forefront of all discussion.

In two weeks, we meet again at Garrison elementary school to examine progress of the Health, Wellness and Nutrition school district policy. A brainstorming session is on the agenda, and an updated report will be submitted to the school board. It would be ideal if tasty morsels could be made from scratch, using local food—that’s our old school solution. Till next time, eat well.

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