Cook For America Swaps Mystery Meat for Homemade Meat Sauce, One School Cafeteria At a Time

West believes Americans' fast food mentality is at the heart of the problem in public school lunches and that there is a misconception that healthier meal options made from scratch are more expensive to provide. He joined forces with health advocates to fight obesity-related diseases and the medical costs that can result.

"When I look at processed versus scratch -- either way I'm paying for labor," West said. "If I buy it processed I'm paying labor through some person who works in a factory not in my state who will spend their paycheck not in my district or I can pay people and invest in my staff, give them training and pride in their job. Pay them the labor and they in turn give back to the community."

The tough part is parting for a full overhaul of the central kitchen, which is where the Colorado Health Foundation stepped in, providing most of the $360,000 needed for the upgrade. Most school kitchens got rid of stoves to make way for machines that simply heat up processed foods.

Cook For America also works with school districts to rethink how they serve and budget cafeteria food to students, especially those who are eligible for free or reduced lunches.

As in many school districts nationwide, 60 percent of Weld County students get free or reduced meals, but because of the negative stigma attached to it, those kids who are eligible are often too embarrassed to ask for it and will choose to go hungry. Adamick believes that while the problem is complex, the solutions provide multi-dimensional benefits.

"When we serve kids breakfast in their classrooms, what we see is fewer visits to the nurse's office, which naturally increases their learning time," Adamick said. "We see them being more attentive, fewer behavioral problems -- all of these things affect learning."

Another key to reforming school lunches is to change the way school districts think about budgeting for cafeteria food, and make them see providing food from scratch can be affordable.

"[Cafeteria workers are] not the problem, they are the solution, when they go back to work and realize how wonderful it is to cook for their kids from scratch," Adamick said.

Get Cook For America's recipes for corn bread with chilies and cheese, and Aspen power bars.

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