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The Changing Cafeteria

Fresh ingredients and tasty options have kids craving today’s school lunches.

Orange County Public Schools use their food truck program to get feedback about what kids want to eat.

Depending on when and where you went to school, you might not have the fondest memories of your alma mater’s cafeteria. There was a time, after all, when school lunches largely consisted of canned goods, reheated and slopped out by surly kitchen workers who couldn’t care less about the food’s nutritional content. Is it any wonder that such fare was cut down more often than craved?

But that was then. Today, school cafeterias are working from a whole new menu—particularly in Greater Orlando. What’s more, students increasingly want what’s being served, and the reasons are threefold: fresh ingredients, input and options.

“We try to stay up with the kids’ taste palates, so we do our own research and go to different malls and see where the kids are eating,” says Lora Gilbert, senior director of food & nutrition services for Orange County Public Schools (OCPS). “We don’t just go to one mall; we go to all three. Then we look and see where the longest lines are with the kids.”

Rob Rinaldo, director of dining services at Lake Highland Preparatory School (LHPS), takes a similar approach to his job. “Our mentality is to make it like a restaurant,” he says, “and give students selections they look forward to every day.”

In fact, no matter what your children’s favorites are, chances are they’re being served at a school cafeteria near you. Let’s grab a table, peruse the menu, and see just how far school lunch has come since you last experienced it.

Keeping It Fresh

For most local schools, the days of canned vegetables are long gone, with the freshest possible ingredients being served instead. And if you think such policies extend only to private schools, think again.

“One thing I think we’re doing extremely well is getting fresh produce,” says Gilbert. “There’s hardly any canned fruit or vegetables. We either do it frozen or fresh.”

What’s more, OCPS and many other area schools turn to local or in-state suppliers for produce whenever possible. For example, Gilbert’s team is currently getting green beans, corn, tomatoes and satsumas—seedless, easy-peeling citrus similar to but sweeter than oranges—from Florida farmers.

OCPS’s devotion to fresh ingredients stems in part from the fact that the food & nutrition division is overseen by the Florida Department of Agriculture rather than the Department of Education.

“We have loved being under the Department of Agriculture,” says Gilbert. “They put us in the same room as farmers, we get to talk to them about how much we’ll need and how much they can supply, and we’re even going to release soon a farm-to-school bid. We’re looking for a farmer or farmers to produce enough that would go to one of our central kitchens and 15 schools, hoping we can build that enterprise.”

Similarly, LHPS brings in seasonal vegetables and fresh fruit, with an emphasis on fresh. “We don’t want trucks to travel from other parts of the state to bring us tomatoes,” says Rinaldo. “We want to source locally as much as we can.”

Trinity Prep’s Garden Club

LHPS also uses fresh meat, poultry, seafood—including wild-caught fish—and bread, with ingredients being delivered daily. Trinity Preparatory School (TPS), on the other hand, has been experimenting with an even closer source of fresh produce: their own on-campus garden.

Spearheaded by science teacher Jonathan Gray, and launched in 2015, TPS’s garden program was an offshoot of the Green Team club, which Gray leads. It stemmed from a site assessment to see what the school could be doing better in terms of ecological impact. Per Gray, “One of the things we decided we could improve upon was to have a garden; a space where we’re growing food.”

To help establish and maintain the garden, Gray enlisted Fleet Farming, a nonprofit, Orlando-based organization, marking the first time the group had worked with a school. “They really seemed to have the expertise I was lacking in terms of building, maintaining and growing stuff,” says Gray.

Although the garden hardly counts as a major food supplier for TPS, the project has contributed arugula, kale and basil to the Trinity Grille, and it looks to keep growing. Moreover, the program has benefited more than students’ taste buds. “We’re trying to get as many kids involved in as many areas as possible,” says Gray, adding that science classes, the art club and the Latin club have participated in the garden, which has an opendoor policy for all interested students.

Customer Feedback

Fresh ingredients are great, but those in the business of feeding kids have found that such fare alone won’t keep students coming back. Accordingly, listening to and acting on feedback is integral to keeping their customers satisfied. As Rinaldo puts it, “My favorite parts of the day are interacting with the students—getting to know what they like for lunch—and providing a great dining experience for everyone in [LHPS’s] Tartan Café.”

OCPS is no different—albeit on a much larger scale. “We want to hear our customers’ complaints,” says Gilbert. “That’s what will make us better.” For instance, after years of student dissatisfaction with their pizzas, OCPS changed the recipe in 2015, moving to a parbaked crust allowing for the use of non-frozen cheese and different toppings, all of which was well received by students.

OCPS’s food truck in action

Another way that OCPS gets feedback is via their food-truck program, in which the school system invites a vendor’s chef to make new items, the crème de la crème of which are taken around the county on the food truck. “We usually go out to all the high schools, a few middle and elementary, and the kids will take a customer survey on an iPad and tell us what they think.”

Gilbert also adds, “If kids don’t really like cafeteria food, they’ll try the food-truck food, because that’s a little more acceptable and trendy.” Furthermore, she and her team have found that among students who didn’t previously buy lunch at the cafeteria, 42 percent who sample the food truck go on to become customers three to five times per week.

Giving Kids Options

What do you get when you combine fresh ingredients and customer feedback? More options than one could reasonably be expected to shake a stick at, if local schools are any indication.

Bishop Moore Catholic High School is a great example of that diversity in action, with three to four sushi chefs being brought in every Friday to create rolls for hungry students. For kids who prefer a more traditional lunch, the school’s deli features made-to-order sandwiches, flatbreads and wraps, and a made-to-order salad bar—featuring 30 different toppings—was added this year.

If anything, LHPS takes that sort of variety to an even higher level. “We cater to the diversity of our student body,” says Rinaldo, “offering vegetarian and vegan options, as well as Asian, Spanish, Indian and Italian cuisine, along with classic American cooking.”

As a result, LHPS students and faculty have daily choices that include four casual dining options, four different entrees (sometimes including London broil, cold-water-caught Atlantic salmon, and other delicacies), seasonal fresh and sautéed vegetables, fresh whole and sliced fruit, and a bounty of side dishes. And that’s on top of two salad bars, made-to-order deli sandwiches and wraps, and even a grab-and-go salad, wrap and sandwich fridge.

OCPS also prides itself on lunchtime choices, but because state-run schools are subject to strict guidelines regarding sugar and fat content, their chefs have to get creative—much to the delight of diners. “We have to get down to the flavor,” says Gilbert. “What is the flavor that kids are looking for? With our burgers, we’re starting topping bars so they can have what they want on their hamburgers. We have taco bars, so they can put what they want on tacos. You know, things that kids like to pick themselves.”

Further helping OCPS diversify its food offerings is the large pool of world-class hospitality and food-service talent available locally, thanks to the proximity of the theme parks and resort hotels. “When people get tired of the nights and weekends,” says Gilbert, “they come into the school food-service program, because we’re very family friendly.”

At the end of the day, the result is food that county employees can take pride in and kids look forward to eating. “It’s pretty fun,” Gilbert admits. “We love our jobs.”

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