Statement on the March 25, 2021 Senate Hearing on Child Nutrition Reauthorization
The members of ScratchWorks want to thank Senators Stabenow and Boozman for convening the first full committee hearing on Child Nutrition Reauthorization last week. We were delighted to see the evident bipartisan support for not only reauthorizing but also modernizing this act in order to address the current needs in our country. We were likewise pleased to hear Senator Gillibrand and many of her colleagues emphasize the need for Universal Free Meals; the USDA waivers granted in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us the tremendous impact that free school meals can have on both children and their families. We believe it is past time to pass Universal Free Meals.
As a collective of school food operators and organizations committed to advancing scratch cooking in schools, ScratchWorks was excited to hear testimony on not only scratch cooking but also local procurement and grants for kitchen equipment, culinary training, and technical assistance. We were also grateful to hear senators and witnesses discuss the importance of cultural food choices and express their commitment to serving native communities better.
We believe in the power of scratch cooking because it ensures that children have access to healthy, delicious food every day at school. Our school food operators run scratch-cook kitchens across the country, and they have been not only able to meet federal nutrition guidelines but also create scratch-cooked meals that kids think are delicious. Hearing how other scratch-cook programs have struggled to meet whole grain requirements or hit sodium targets revealed how necessary more culinary training is if we want to ensure that our school kitchens are equipped to provide the best food possible.
For many children, school is the only place where they have access to healthy foods, including whole grains. Our operators know from experience the difficulties that cooking whole grain pastas can pose, but their culinary training has enabled them to problem solve and serve intact noodles that kids will eat. “Hitting the 51% whole grain requirement for our pastas presented some challenges initially, but by cooking the pasta al dente and utilizing proper batch cooking techniques we were still able to produce a delicious dish for our kids. Choosing shallower holding pans and watching our chilling and reheating processes helped a lot too,” says Chef Ann Cooper, former Director of Food Services at Boulder Valley School District.
Food waste in school cafeterias has also left some food service directors concerned that scratch-cooked meals cannot meet the Tier 2 sodium targets without compromising on flavor. Our school food operators, however, have all been able to produce delicious, scratch-cooked menu items within the Tier 2 sodium targets. “Menu planning is a big piece of this puzzle. The sodium targets do not need to be met per recipe or meal necessarily. The target must be met by averaging sodium per meal served over the duration of an entire week. Therefore, serving some meals that inherently have less sodium than the threshold on some days provides the flexibility to serve meals that might be slightly over the threshold on other days,” says Daniel Giusti, Founder and CEO of Brigaid.
Culinary technique also plays a huge role in the creation of healthy and delicious scratch-cooked meals. “In a school kitchen, you learn not to rely on sodium to bring out flavor. It’s balancing the acidity and refining the flavor profile that allows you to build a recipe that kids like while still meeting USDA guidelines,” says Bertrand Weber, Director of Culinary and Wellness Services at Minneapolis Public Schools.
Scratch cooking has to be part of the future of school food, and we at ScratchWorks know firsthand that nutritional guidelines do not need to be rolled back to ensure that scratch cooking can happen. Training in proper culinary technique will provide the springboard that school food professionals need to create meals using more fresh ingredients, but professional development alone will not be enough. As a collective, we are committed to working with legislators to increase the transparency of USDA Foods, commission the first national landscape analysis of scratch-cook school kitchens, introduce discussions around a pilot initiative for school food programs looking to explore or expand their scratch cooking, and codify a definition of scratch cooking so that all school food professionals have shared language around this sustainable model for preparing healthy and delicious food.