When a child's favorite item in the school cafeteria is a processed chicken ring, it's hard for a food service worker to persuade him or her to switch to a bowlful of spinach. Unless, Culinary Institute of Charleston chef Miles Huff maintains, the spinach is downright delicious.
"What's going to make the child eat the food?" Huff asked at the outset of a five-day cooking program for a dozen members of Dorchester County Public Schools' food service staff. "It's you."
The culinary training, funded by a Boeing grant, also is being offered to Charleston County School District's cooks. If the initiative is successful, Huff hopes to help take the model statewide.
"The old days of ripping open a number 10 can of sodium and preservatives are gone," Huff says. "Now we have to get (the cooks) on board. These guys will make the difference."
New federal nutrition standards mandating more fruits, vegetables and whole grains on schoolchildren's cafeteria trays have led to increased fruit and vegetable consumption, according to a Harvard School of Public Health study published earlier this year. But the guidelines launched in 2012 also have resulted in a tremendous amount of waste: Researchers estimate students nationwide trash $3.8 million worth of produce every day.
"The new regulations have done a fabulous job of making fruits and vegetables available," David Just, a Cornell University economist who co-authored the study, recently told the San Francisco Chronicle. "But they haven't dealt well with the problem of motivating children to eat the new foods."
Huff outlined a few tricks for getting schoolchildren to broaden their diets, such as referring to the bowl of spinach as a "Popeye salad" or "Transformer salad" (research shows kids prefer named items) and hiding quinoa in the mac-and-cheese. "Anytime you can fortify something with a protein, slip it in there," he urged.
Yet Huff believes the very best scheme for winning over schoolchildren involves tastier food. But not every worker charged with making lunch has the know-how to correctly season food and present it attractively.
"I've had everyone from a Level II sommelier to the lady who prepares salads and works the cash register," says Huff. "We're trying to educate them that as chefs, we use our eyes, we use our taste buds."
On the first day of class, the workers were assigned to prepare recipes for roasted vegetable soup; watermelon-and-cucumber salad; strawberry spinach salad; Creole chicken; and gluten-free peanut butter cookies. They also passed around various homemade spice blends, sniffing the dried herbs that project "Italian," "Mexican" or "barbecue" flavors.
"Now, will they like Moroccan-style whatever?" Huff asked rhetorically. "I don't know. But if your kids won't eat it, let's play with it."
Jarlene Goodwine, who's worked at Ashley Ridge High School for two years, says she commonly uses salt and pepper in the cafeteria kitchen. (Beginning this month, elementary school lunches can't exceed 1,230 milligrams of sodium; a USDA pamphlet recommends using "fresh or dried herbs, spices, lemon or orange zest, or fruit juices to jazz up the flavors in foods without adding sodium.")
"We add stuff to stuff, yeah we do," says Goodwine, who serves her share of chicken rings. "We add salt and pepper to give it flavor. Because some of the recipes, I wouldn't eat it."
Although sodium is subject to restrictions, Huff believes the most dangerous enemy of healthy childhood diets is sugar: His mother and nine of her 11 siblings have been diagnosed with diabetes, and Huff says he's dedicated to fighting the trend with his culinary expertise.
"It's almost like a calling," he says. "I've been trained for this moment."
Circulating the teaching kitchen, Huff paused to ask the group tasked with mixing a vinaigrette whether it was properly seasoned.
"Have you tasted it? What did you think?" he inquired.
The workers agreed it was very good salad dressing. "Now if we could just get them off the Ranch," one of them added, shaking her head.
Reach Hanna Raskin at 937-5560.