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

Cook For America teaches cafeteria workers how to cook from scratch.

Jan. 24, 2012— -- In an era when many school cafeterias have long ago traded in fresh baked goods for re-heated, pre-packaged meals, two lady chefs travel across the country on a mission to revolutionize the dreaded school lunch one school district at a time.

Cook for America, founded by professional chefs Kate Adamick and Andrea Martin, works to change the way school districts provide lunches to students, from making healthier meals from scratch to budgeting for them -- no more mystery meat on their watch.

"The goal is, essentially, to professionalize the lunch lady or the lunch man," Martin said. "There are two things missing in schools that help put homemade food on the table: equipment and professional training. So what this training does is it brings the average food service worker into an alignment with a skill set that allows them to cook from scratch."

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Adamick was a chef in a four-star French restaurant and Martin worked in "farm to table" restaurants, as well as high-end catering before they founded the non-profit Cook For America. Members of the organization's team help train school food service directors, kitchen managers and chefs, travel across the country to host a five-day long "boot camp" program on food safety, baking, sauce-making and knife skills.

"We do culinary math, time management, work with raw proteins," Martin said.

"Nightline" was invited to Cook For America's sessions in Greeley, Colo., where Weld County public school cafeteria workers were taught how to make their own meat sauce from scratch, instead of serving the usual pre-packaged burritos.

"Part of it was in the 1970s, this fascination with everything being convenient -- give yourself a break today, you don't have to cook every single day -- and then a lot of processed foods came onto the market that made it convenient. What we've discovered is that there is a price for that convenience," Martin said.

According to a study published in the December issue of the American Heart Journal, kids who eat school lunch regularly are almost 30 percent more likely to be obese than kids who bring bagged lunch from home -- school lunches are heavy on calories and light on nutrition because processed foods are cheaper to serve. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new statistics last week stating that almost 17 percent of children were obese in 2009 to 2010, a level that has stayed consistent since 2007.

Jeremy West, a warrior in the Cook For America army, is determined to help change all that. West oversees every meal from scratch and believes eating school lunch should not be a risk factor for childhood obesity. He instructs food service workers on how to properly dice, slice, blend and puree, then has them study and practice measurements, kitchen management and efficiency.

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.