No surprises there.
There’s nothing wrong with the premise of the show: A talented chef helps a public school district improve the quality and nutrition of its cafeteria menus and everyone learns valuable lessons. But it can feel contrary to the mission of healthier food in schools to be embedded in the kind of tawdry drama better left to Jersey Shore.
Especially when a similar effort—sans TV cameras—is playing out in New Mexico. But these players aren’t backbiting each other in illicit sound bites; they’re all working together toward improving school lunches for the constituency that matters: the kids.
The state of New Mexico applied for and received a United States Department of Agriculture Team Nutrition Training Grant. The money pays for a “culinary specialist” to work this year with Santa Fe Public Schools and the Santa Fe Indian School. The goal is to incorporate new, healthier items into school menus, educate students and parents, and assist district kitchen managers and cafeteria staff.
Chef Janell Jayes was chosen to tackle the job and recently oversaw a Frito pie contest, which I had the great privilege to help judge. Apparently USDA guidelines are a little fuzzy on how best to create a Frito pie—national standardized recipes lean toward a Texas chile, like national textbook content leans toward the Texas Board of Education—but failing to serve up the Santa Fe Woolworth’s standby in these parts is grounds for a preteen riot.
For the Frito pie competition, Jayes had asked kitchen managers and staff from the district’s schools to bring their best recipes to the table. There were around a dozen to sample.
Any foodies who might look down their noses at school cafeteria cooks can choose this moment to take a flying, um, Frito at a rolling doughnut: Every chile topping was dastardly in its deliciousness. I think I can safely speak for my fellow judges, Andy Suazo, food service director at SFIS, and Michelle Roetzer, lead instructor for the Santa Fe Community College culinary arts program, when I say every Frito pie was genuinely mouthwatering and praise-worthy.
There are tricks to judging a contest of this nature—Jayes warned us that school kids eat with their eyes, and that color and texture need to be at least as enticing as flavor—but the schools’ cafeteria staffers know that better than, for example, a weekly paper’s food writer.
More impressive than a dozen well-spiced and flavorful Frito pies, however, was seeing the school staff and SFPS’ Student Nutrition Office in action. The degree of genuine interest in the well-being of the students was even more palpable than the love with which the chile was cooked.
That, Jayes says, makes her job easier.
“I come in and help develop new recipes and teach the kitchen staff some different techniques for preparing the food,” she says. “People are really open-hearted about figuring out how to make some changes.”
When a new recipe is decided on—like the winning Frito pie—it gets tested at a local school, refined based on student response and then pushed district-wide. Next year, Jayes says, the USDA grant has her traveling throughout the state and trying to implement successes from the Santa Fe pilot program.
The bigger picture in the US is a daunting one, according to Jayes.
“We need to alter our palette. We eat sugar and salt, and we don’t know how to savor the flavor of fresh vegetables,” she says. But she claims Santa Fe has been an encouraging step in a long process.
“We’re putting a few new menu items out in the district each month,” she says. “It may not seem like much but, from inside, it feels like we’re making rapid progress.”
Not as rapid as I can eat an SFPS Frito pie, but still.
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