When my info-larder gets too packed, it’s time to serve up some choice nuggets from around the Web.


chouice nuggetsGet ’em while they’re hot.  • In today’s New York Times, Kim Severson’s got a wonderful report on one New York City school cafeteria’s quest to cook as much as possible from scratch.

The piece has all sorts of good tidbits. E.g., to serve meat, New York City school cafeterias have to use stuff like “frozen pre-roasted commodity chicken parts.” Why? Because “there isn’t a speck of raw meat allowed in New York City school cafeterias. It poses too much of a food-handling challenge.”

Granted, the meat industry is churning out highly dubious product these days. And school cafeterias are a great place to teach kids to eat less meat; and thawed-out “frozen pre-roasted commodity chicken parts” surely do their bit on that front!

But the no-fresh-meat rule is surely about lack of trained personnel–i.e., professional cooks. At most schools, Severson reports, the kitchen staff “isn’t trained to do much more than steam frozen vegetables, dig ravioli out of a six-pound can or heat frozen chicken patties in a convection oven.”

Safely breaking down a bunch of whole chickens for a fricassee requires training and experience–and school-cafeteria budgets are simply too cut-to-the-bone (to keep with the butchery imagery) to pay for such training.

Then there’s the whole equipment problem: schools are in charge of raising funds to supply their own kitchens with ovens, cooktops, pots, etc. As a result, they raise funds in dubious ways (like installing soda and junk-food machines), or they simply eschew real cooking equipment and stick to reheating machines. From Severson:

Barely half of New York’s 1,385 school kitchens have enough cooking and fire-suppression equipment so cooks can actually sauté, brown or boil over open flame.

Even in those that do, aging ovens sometimes don’t heat properly, equipment is hidden away in storage rooms or broken….More than 80 percent of the nation’s districts cook fewer than half their entrees from scratch, according to a 2009 survey by the School Nutrition Association.

The article describes the heroic effort of one cafeteria staff in Queens to skirt those obstacles and more to put a decent lunch on the table for the kids. Toward the bottom of the article, though, we come to a heart-breaking line:

“No machines until you get your lunch!” an aide yells, trying to keep students from the bank of vending machines at the back of the cafeteria ringing with the siren call of Pop-Tarts and Cool Ranch Doritos.

Why would such a conscientiously run cafeteria peddle such garbage? Severson doesn’t go there, but I’ll venture a guess: to raise funds for cooking equipment. The decision to make school cafeterias responsible for their funding own equipment is a brutal legacy of the Reagan era. I hope it changes soon.

• At the Washington Post, Jane Black has an interesting article on the school-lunch problem and a possible solution: de facto privatization. Black opens with a depressing and accurate summary of the miserly sums now devoted to school lunches and the dismal fiscal situation that confronts school lunch reformers. She concludes:

But with a projected $1.6 trillion federal deficit in 2009, even the strongest supporters of school lunch reform privately concede a substantial increase is unlikely to pass.

Black highlights an Oakland-based company called Revolution Foods that reportedly offers well-sourced, healthy, and good-tasting lunches to school districts for a price only about 12 percent higher than the government’s $2.68 per-meal allotted budget. The company cooks the meals at regional commissaries and then distributes them to client schools.
From my perspective, any method for getting decent food into schools deserves praise. But I can’t support a full-on privatization model–if we want a decent society, I think we need to figure out how to make and serve good food in our public schools.

• For those of us who like to eat and find ourselves rather hooked on it, curtailing cliamte change is really, really important.

• Ezra Klein thinks  maybe the meat industry should be forced to stop using so many antibiotics. D’accord!

• Commmercial-scale cellulosic ethanol from swithcgrass is coming … in “ten years or sooner”!!!!  Bold claim, guys–I’ll be checking up on that!

• Terrain Magazine has an interesting article on a housing development in suburban Phoenix build around a farm.  It’s called …. Agritopia. On La Vida Locavore, Jill Richardson says she’s planning a piece on “what’s right and what’s wrong” with the project. I look forward to Jill’s take.

• At Bitten blog, Corinne Ramey weighs in on the best way to avoid pesticides in your produce. 

• Is The New York Times’ new restaurant critic Pete Wells a hanging judge, or has New York City run out of great restaurants? In his first three reviews combined (here’s the latest), he’s awarded all of one star (of a possible combined twelve.