PITTSBORO, N.C. — On a typical day, the cafeterias at the 17 public schools in Chatham County serve just over 4,800 lunches.
On each of three successive days in April, the schools served nearly 5,900 lunches.
The difference: Modeled on a nutrition initiative promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama, the Chatham County Schools invited three chefs from the region to design a lunch menu that would compete with the chicken nuggets, nachos and pizza, respectively, that the schools typically serve those days.
The chef’s entrees accounted for 49.3 percent of the meals the schools served those three days.
The schools plan to offer the “Chef Challenge” again next year and already have begun incorporating the chefs’ menus into their regular meal rotation, says Debbie McKenzie, child nutrition director for the Chatham County Schools.
The cafeteria staffs also are getting additional training from the chefs and building some of their ideas into their preparation of meals.
The Chef Challenge grew out of McKenzie’s participation in Michelle Obama’s “Chef Moves to Schools” campaign and an effort by Robert Logan, superintendent of the Chatham County Schools, to improve the flavor of cafeteria food.
“We have fat under control, and are trying to get sodium under control,” McKenzie says. “But we’ve just removed those and not added seasoning, which is what I hope to do.”
Logan, in turn, talked to officials at Briar Chapel, a new-home community just outside Chapel Hill that works with area chefs on special events.
Briar Chapel teamed up with the Abundance Foundation, a Pittsboro nonprofit that promotes local food and renewable energy.
Together, the two groups recruited chefs from the Carolina Inn in Chapel Hill, The Fearrington House in Pittsboro, and the Natural Chef Culinary Program in Pittsboro at Central Carolina Community College.
The schools asked each of the chefs, using the same foods the schools use and meeting requirements of the U.S. Department of Agriculture on nutrition and food components, to create a lunch menu that increased nutrition, tasted good and limited the use of sugar, salt and fat.
The chefs submitted their menus to the school system for review, and then hosted groups of students from Chatham County in their kitchens to answer questions about food and cooking.
The chefs also conducted a 3½-hour training session for managers of the cafeterias at the 17 schools.
On April 11, 12 and 13, going head to head with chicken nuggets, nachos and pizza, respectively, the cafeterias served a three-cheese creamy pasta dish from Gregg Hamm and Kelly Taylor of Central Carolina Community College, macaroni and cheese with chicken and pepperoni sauc4e from Colin Bedford of The Fearrington House, and a chicken-fajita wrap from Jimmy Reale from The Carolina Inn.
To follow up, the schools have invited Hamm to visit all 17 cafeterias for continuing education of the staff, suggesting ways the staff can make better use of its equipment and seasoning to improve nutrition and the quality in preparing the schools’ current fare.
And Briar Chapel has given WalMart gift cards, approved by the school system, to all the cafeteria managers and staff members who participated in the Chef Challenge.
The initiative, says McKenzie, was “very well received for the most part.”