Food for thought

High-tech kitchens, award-winning recipes and a dedicated staff keep pupils happy

December 03, 2006|By Sarah O'Brien | Sarah O'Brien,Special to The Sun

It's just 9 a.m. at North Carroll Middle School in Hampstead, but already LouAnn Nalepa has made spaghetti sauce that's simmering in a 40-gallon stainless-steel kettle.

Nearby, Rebecca Mann is chopping vegetables for a tossed salad, and Barbara Price is gearing up to prepare hundreds of grilled-cheese sandwiches that will be frozen and cooked another day.

Overseeing this massive lunch preparation is Edie Calhoun, who has worked in the school's kitchen for more than 30 years and as cafeteria manager since 1978.

"It's still fun," Calhoun said. "I have a great crew.

The four women are among the 175 or so workers in Carroll County's 41 public schools who are charged with feeding thousands of pupils every day. Last month, a daily average of 12,000 pupils bought lunch and 1,100 purchased breakfast.

The menus are set by Eulalia Muschik. As the school system's food-services supervisor, Muschik must create menus that meet the strict nutritional requirements of the National School Lunch Program, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture administers.

On a recent morning before the weeklong Thanksgiving break, Calhoun and her crew talked about the best parts of their jobs -- interacting with children got the most votes -- amid the stainless-steel, high-tech equipment that adorns their recently renovated kitchen. Calhoun's typical day starts as early as 6 a.m. There's the milk deliveryman to meet, cooler and freezer temperatures to check and, most importantly, meals to start preparing. Nalepa arrives at 6:45 a.m. to cook breakfast for about 20 hungry children who show up in the cafeteria at 7:30. Things can get hectic when pupils start arriving for the midday meal. The first shift arrives at 10:48 a.m.; the last group wraps up at 1:10 p.m.

The women take their mission of feeding children seriously.

"No kid goes hungry here," Calhoun said. "If they don't have money, we feed them anyway." Like many schools, the front office loans money to those who need it.

The women also double as disciplinarians and counselors as needed. "Sometimes kids will come [to lunch] in tears because they failed a test or something like that, so you just talk to them, make them feel better," said Nalepa, who is in her ninth year at the school.

Mann, who most often serves as the cashier, said her favorite part of the job is seeing the pupils.

"I like to get to know the kids, so they can feel special," Mann said. "It's good to remember little things about them, like if they like mustard with their chicken. They love that kind of thing, especially at this age when they're kind of finding themselves."

Cafeteria workers also tackle the challenge of preparing food that appeals to children. "The key is getting kids to want to purchase and eat the meals," Muschik said. With fast food and tasty fat-laden snacks available outside of schools, cooks must find ways to offer dishes that not only meet government standards but also please young palettes.

Between 40 percent and 50 percent of the county's 28,000-student population who can buy lunch do, but 30 years ago that figure reached as high as 65 percent, Muschik said.

"Kids weren't used to as many choices," Muschik said. Surprisingly, Muschik said, the basic menu requirements -- food groups and amounts -- have changed little since the national lunch program's inception in 1946. What has changed, however, is part of the program's focus. While it was launched due to concerns about malnourished children, attention has shifted to school lunches' role in combating childhood obesity.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the percentage of overweight children ages 6 to 11 more than doubled from 7 percent in 1980 to 18.8 percent in 2004. In the 12- to 19-year-old age group, the number jumped from 5 percent to 17.1 percent during that time. Maryland-specific data is unavailable.

As a result, the government's growing concern about childhood obesity, changes in the food supplied to schools have occurred over the years. For instance, Muschik said, the cheese is now reduced-fat; ground beef contains less fat than it once did. Nevertheless, the fast-food-type food remains popular among pupils.

Last month, the kitchen served an average of 375 pupils each day, with pizza day -- every Friday -- attracting an extra 25 to 50 buyers. The school has about 800 pupils.

Another challenge facing Calhoun and her peers is the need to use unordered food that ends up in their kitchens. Essentially, when the U.S. government purchases certain surplus agricultural products -- such as cranberries, blueberries or peanuts -- to keep their prices from collapsing, the extra food can end up in school kitchens nationwide.

Calhoun won a blue ribbon last month in a statewide bakeoff that required the use of such surplus commodities. She adapted a cherry coffee cake recipe she'd stumbled across, and judges at the Maryland School Nutrition Association awarded it first place in the Yeast Breads category.

While school lunches sometimes get a bad rap, Calhoun and her crew feel good about the food they serve.

"We're always sampling it," Calhoun said, laughing.

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