San Antonio Charity Guide
No more mystery meat

San Antonio school lunches get spiced up with help from local culinary pros

San Antonio school lunches get spiced up with help from culinary pros

Chef Justin Ward trains San Antonio ISD chefs.
Chef Justin Ward trains SAISD staff. Courtesy/SAISD

If the words “school lunch” still conjure up images of mushy peas and mystery meats, the San Antonio Independent School District’s latest initiative may just change your perspective. Student meals across the city are getting a tasty twist thanks to the the Culinary Institute of America at San Antonio.

Child nutrition managers in the school district have been undergoing training at the Pearl-based culinary arts campus in order to enhance their own cooking skills and menus. A two-year, grant-funded skills enrichment program resulting from this partnership began in June.

Like all school districts, SAISD has the difficult task of balancing federal nutrition requirements on calories, fat, and sodium intake with costs. The specially designed CIA-SA program helps the district adhere to the rules while introducing dishes that appeal to kids.

“We’ve always put food quality at the top of our list,” Jenny Arredondo, senior executive director of SAISD child nutrition services, tells CultureMap. “Our standard is to have nutritious food that’s also tasty.”

SAISD and CIA got ready for the summer training sessions by holding taste tests for families at Fox Tech High School last school year. The dishes were so successful that many of the guinea pigs asked to take the recipes home.

Following that trial run, 100 SAISD child nutrition managers and supervisors — known as culinary managers at CIA-SA — attended one of five week-long sessions to enhance culinary skills and improve food education. (All SAISD child nutrition managers will have taken part in a CIA-SA session by the time school starts in August.)

CIA-SA Assistant Professor Justin Ward explains the role of a culinary manager isn’t as easy as some people may think. “You’re not just a cook mass producing food, you’re thinking about what you’re serving on a holistic level, 'Is this flavorful? Is it nutritious?'" he says.

To help answer those questions, the training sessions offer hands-on experiences with full engagement between school culinary managers and the chefs from CIA-SA. “The first thing that happens is a skill assessment. I have to see what their skill level is," Ward explains. "After a brief intro they get in the kitchen and get to work.” 

Part of that work is learning how to balance dishes that appeal to kids while exposing them to new cuisine. This year, SAISD students will continue seeing favorite meals like pizza, but alongside dishes like fish tacos with cucumber pico de gallo and cilantro sour cream and banana cream cupcakes. Arredondo says students will also begin seeing more creative dishes that involve ingredients, such as snap peas, they may not often get to see outside of school. “It’s about exposure, too,” she adds.

The program isn’t just for the kids, however. It’s also about making SAISD kitchens a workplace of camaraderie and support. “Every Thursday, we have our taco throw down,” Ward explains. “The participants create everything from the type of taco they serve to a creative way to market and present their tacos.” The winners are crowned at the end of the week with a luncheon for friends and family.

“It’s amazing to see the renewed sense of pride and passion these managers have and getting to see them demonstrate that to their loved ones is a special experience,” he adds.

CIA-SA and SAISD will keep working through this coming school year and renew their efforts in summer 2019. By the end, 100 campus administrators, managers and supervisors, along with 500 child nutrition employees from more than 80 campuses will have completed the program.

“Our overarching goal isn’t just to teach these managers technical skills or hand out new recipes,” says Ward. “We are really hoping to spark a cultural change in school cafeterias.”