(Spartanburg) Herald Journal

SPARTANBURG (AP) — A lot has changed since Elaine Gulley became a school cafeteria worker in Spartanburg 30 years ago.

She used to make a lot of foods from scratch, she said.

But lunch lines became busier. There are more children to serve and more menu options for children to choose from.

As a result of needing to serve more food, quicker, Gulley, 67, said the school gradually began to stray away from scratch-made foods, turning to more canned or frozen foods instead.

These foods were less healthy for the students, but “it was just faster and easier,” she said.

Chartwells school dining service, which provides food services to schools in five Spartanburg County school districts, is returning to the ways of old.

“We are making more from scratch again,” said Gulley, as she chopped vegetables on a recent Wednesday. “And that’s great for the children.”

Gulley, who works at Byrnes Freshman Academy, is one of more than 160 school cafeteria workers from Spartanburg districts 1, 2, 3, 5 and 7 who are participating in cooking training classes.

“The training is the first step in training our associates in the skills needed to cook more food from scratch,” said Peggy Luther, district manager for Chartwells.

The training classes are offered at Byrnes Freshman Academy, Byrnes High School, Beech Springs Intermediate. Berry Shoals Intermediate and Florence Chapel Middle. Two cafeteria workers from every school Chartwells manages are attending the classes. The two will take the training back to their schools and teach the other workers there.

“We are trying to move away from so much canned and processed foods to more fresh stuff,” Luther said. “We do cook from scratch some, but I think we can take that to a greater level and introduce some new things. But in order for us to be successful, we have to give our associates the training to make it happen.”

Recently, the Byrnes Freshman Academy kitchen contained about 10 cafeteria workers from five school districts who were learning how to cook and prepare some brand new recipes.

Vegetable lasagna. Chicken bruschetta with fresh salsa. Cucumber and apple salad. Vegetable chili soup. The menu items might be rolled out in schools in coming years.

They also sharpened up their knife skills, which can help regulate serving sizes and cut down on waste.

It’s important for Spartanburg schools to serve healthier foods, said Laura Ringo, executive director of Partners for Active Living.

Childhood obesity is referred to by many as a national epidemic. According to data from the Spartanburg Childhood Obesity taskforce, which is comprised of several local organizations, childhood obesity affects 41 percent of Spartanburg County’s fifth-graders.

“Chartwells has been a great partner in promoting health in our community for years,” Ringo said. “We are excited that they are rolling out a healthy menu program in Spartanburg schools. I think the reach and impact of this effort are going to be tremendous for the health of Spartanburg.”

Luther understands that diet and food are certainly factors that can contribute to obesity. She said some students eat as many as three meals a day at school.

It is Chartwells’ obligation, she said, to offer healthier choices.

“I think it’s about a culture change,” Luther said. “We live in a fast food society. A lot of children eat fast food and a lot of children like it. You have to change that mind-set and you have to provide them quality and taste that looks great. What we used to do wasn’t bad, but we continue to work year after year to get to the next level on improving.”

Efforts to serve healthier foods in Spartanburg schools have been happening the past four to five years.

Jesse Boyd Elementary School became a pilot school for Chartwells’ newest nutritional offerings in 2012.

Breakfast menu items include fresh whole wheat muffins and smoothies made with low-fat yogurt and fresh fruit. At lunch, students choose from a variety of selections including fresh salads, soups and a vegetarian entree. The cafeteria also took some old favorites and gave them a healthier twist, such as the vegetable pizza made with a whole grain crust, reduced fat cheeses and healthier toppings.

At the time, Chartwells and District 7 officials said if the program proved successful, and revenue neutral, it was expected to expand to other schools and other districts.

The school later received national recognition for their efforts to provide students healthier meals.

Luther said when moving away from canned foods to more fresh foods, it “takes baby steps.”

She said students will take to the healthier menu choices better when they are rolled out slowly, rather than taking drastic steps too fast.

“Students have responded very well so far. We know that there has been a lot more fresh fruits and veggies consumed by students. It’s appealing the way we present it. It’s very appetizing and the students love it. They really do.”

Luther said the training sessions happening now are the first of many more to come, and she says the 160 staffers are happy to take part.

“The saying ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is really true,” Luther said. “It takes everybody. The food service. The physical activity. The administration. Parents. It takes everybody to make this successful.”

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Information from: Herald-Journal, http://www.goupstate.com/