Cafeterias serve home-style food

Published 5:20 pm Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Staff Writer 

The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls and home-style turkey-noodle soup are wafting from some kitchens these days — not from pricey, local restaurants, but from the cafeteria kitchens of the Beaufort County Schools.
That’s thanks to an effort by Gwyn Roberson McBride, the school system’s new child nutrition director, and her staff of some 80 cafeteria workers to bring made-from-scratch cooking back to local school children.
Using U.S. Department of Agriculture recipes gleaned from a library of dishes created in the 1960s and 1970s, McBride has led the move away from packaged foods that need simple preparation to a variety of home-style foods offered each day at school.
The move is designed to make more efficient use of the schools’ work force and serve more nutritious foods to public-school students, while bringing the costs of feeding those students down, McBride said.
“We’re getting back to the grassroots of child nutrition,” she said.
The move comes at a time when school systems statewide are facing unprecedented challenges in providing nutritious meals for their students.
About 60 percent of the school food programs in North Carolina are operating in the red, and many school systems have chosen to cut back on the number of school cafeteria workers and focus solely on premade foods as a result, according to Lynn Harvey, who oversees child nutrition for the state Department of Public Instruction.
Harvey praised the move by the Beaufort County schools to choose to serve more home-style foods — taking advantage of the staff and equipment they have.
“It’s a sound decision that I applaud,” she said. “It’s not a trend, but I wish it were.”
A Washington native, McBride, 34, comes from a family well-known in the food service industry in Beaufort County. She is the daughter of caterers Wanda and Willie Roberson of Yankee Hall in Pactolus. And an aunt, Catherine Fulford, has served as cafeteria manager at Washington High School. 
McBride began to focus on a career in child nutrition while a student at East Carolina University and after completing a college project on providing more nutritious snack foods for high-school students.
She joined Beaufort County Schools in March after stints in the Scotland County and Cumberland County school systems 
McBride’s job is to oversee the school system’s $4.15 million food-service budget, its staff and ensure that the operation of 14 cafeterias runs smoothly to provide students with 6,782 nutritious meals at breakfast and lunch each day — all with an eye to the bottom line.
It’s a daunting task.
The practice of providing meals to public-school children dates to 1946 when President Harry Truman signed into law the National School Lunch Act. The act created the National School Lunch program to provide low-cost or free school lunch meals to qualified students through subsidies to schools. The program was established as a way to prop up food prices by absorbing farm surpluses, while at the same time providing food to school-age children.
The majority of the support provided to schools participating in the program comes in the form of a cash reimbursement for each meal served. Schools are also entitled to receive commodity foods and additional commodities as they are available from surplus agricultural stocks.
But the reimbursement rate has not kept up with the cost to local school systems for providing those meals.
Statewide, the average cost of providing a meal to a child in school is $3.05 while the federal reimbursement is only $2.68, on average, according to Harvey.
In Beaufort County, each meal costs the system $2.95 to produce, McBride said.
“There’s a huge gap between what it costs a school system to produce a meal and the reimbursement that system receives,” Harvey said.
McBride hopes that the new focus on home-style meals will help narrow that gap.
One eastern North Carolina school system has seen some success in lowering costs while emphasizing home-style foods and fresh foods.
Currituck County Schools began making the switch to home-style meals and fresh fruits and vegetables earlier this year, and it has lowered its costs, according to Child Nutrition Director E.T. Clement.
McBride said the change in school meals to focus more on school-made foods and fresh fruits and vegetables is not just about lowering costs but giving children the chance to experience new foods and new tastes.
“It’s about giving them the opportunity to try things that they may not try at home,” she said. “Lunch should be an enjoyable experience, and it should be a learning experience.” 
The school system is contracting with local growers, when possible, to supply those fresh fruits and vegetables, which helps boost the local economy.
Making the change to home-style meals has meant teaching the food service staff the new system.
“What we’re trying to do is teach them how to cook,” McBride said.
The switch has been a challenge, according to Joyce Gibbs, cafeteria manager at Eastern Elementary School. 
But she is enthusiastic about the process.
“When we master it, it’s going to be great,” she said.
McBride admits that while the students have really enjoyed some of the new foods, some are slower to catch on.
Many students appear to like the change.
Justice Whichard, a seventh-grade student at Chocowinity Middle School, said he enjoyed the variety of foods he is being served in the school cafeteria.
Matthew Vaughan, 13, another student at Chocowinity Middle School, agreed.
“It’s better than it was,” he said. “I like the quality and the portions you get.” 
Not everyone is pleased with the changes. 
Seventh-graders Ciara Moore and Tia Hardy said they miss some of the foods available before the switch — like pizza dippers and french fries. 
“Some of it’s OK,” Moore said. “But the chicken we had yesterday was a little soggy, and the potato salad we had last week was nasty.” 
McBride promises more improvements when the next school year begins in the fall as she and the school system’s food service workers try more recipes and become familiar again with cooking from scratch. 
“You just have to find that balance, and sometimes that takes a while to work out,” she said. 
Info box
Cinnamon rolls 
1/3 cup active dry yeast 
1 1/4 cups warm water 
3 quarts plus 1 1/2 cups enriched all-purpose flour 
1 1/2 cups instant nonfat dry milk 
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. sugar 
2 Tbsp. salt 
3/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil 
2 1/2 cup water 
1/4 cup ground cinnamon 
3/4 cup sugar 
1 Tbsp. vegetable oil 
2 cups raisins 
For best results, have all ingredients and utensils at room temperature. 
Dissolve dry yeast in warm water. Let stand for 4 to 5 minutes. 
Place flour, dry milk, sugar and salt in mixer bowl. Blend with dough hook for about 2 minutes on low speed. 
Add oil and blend for about 2 minutes on low speed. 
Add water. Mix for 1 minute on low speed. 
Add dissolved yeast and mix for 2 minutes on low speed. 
Knead dough on medium speed for 8 minutes, or until dough is smooth and elastic. 
Place in warm area (about 90 degrees F) for 45 to 60 minutes to rise. 
Place dough on lightly floured surface. Divide into 2 balls, 3 lbs., 2 oz. each. 
Combine cinnamon and sugar. Mix well. Set aside. 
Roll each ball of dough into a rectangle 25 in. by 10 in. and 1/4 inch thick. 
Lightly brush each rectangle with oil. Sprinkle about 1/2 cup cinnamon-sugar mixture over each rectangle. 
Sprinkle 1 cup raisins over cinnamon-sugar mixture on each rectangle. 
roll each rectangle on the long side to form a long slender roll. Cut each roll into 25 uniform pieces 1 in. thick. 
Place in rows of five across and 10 down on an 18 in. by 26 in. by 1 in. deep which has been lightly coated with pan release spray/ 
Place in a warm area (about 90 degrees F) until double in size, about 30 to 50 minutes. 
Bake at 400 degrees for 18 to 20 minutes in a conventional oven (12 to 14 minutes in a convection oven at 350 degrees) until lightly browned. 
Optional: brush lightly with melted margarine or butter (about 1 Tbsp. per pan) while warm. 
Nutrition facts per roll: 209 calories, 4.73 grams protein, 37.70 grams carbohydrate, 4.53 grams total fat, .65 grams saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 292 mg sodium, 1.7 grams dietary fiber.
Makes 50 servings