A behind-the-scenes look at culinary bootcamp

  (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The people making lunch in this big commercial kitchen are pros; some of them serve thousands of diners a day. But they're not all comfortable using a knife to peel a butternut squash or chop fresh parsley.
School lunch: An article in the Aug. 26 Food section quoted Liz Powell, director of food services for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, as saying that buying 80% of its produce locally had added to food costs. After publication, Powell said the costs had actually gone down, with one analysis showing a $3,000 savings over four months. —

They work in school cafeterias, "lunch ladies" who are not all women and who would like to be seen more as lunch teachers contributing to the overall education of the children who eat their food.

They have been trained in food safety but not always in cooking. Too often, they say, their job has been to heat frozen chicken nuggets or packaged burritos, or to distribute canned fruit, sometimes to the children of people growing and picking fresh produce.

So two dozen cafeteria employees from Santa Barbara County schools are spending a week this summer in a culinary boot camp, learning to cook pork roasts and chicken, vegetables and casseroles they can serve in their schools — food that tastes good, comes in under budget and meets federal requirements.

The boot camp "drill sergeants" — Cook for America founders Andrea Martin and Kate Adamick — also discuss politics and child psychology, nutrition and marketing. They teach time management, culinary math, knife skills, the history of school food and menu planning. Get rid of flavored milk and stop serving cinnamon rolls for breakfast, they say.

"I'm totally impressed," says Cathy Kelly, one of the people taking part in the boot camp in a central kitchen of the Santa Maria-Bonita School District.

Kelly, who works in the Lompoc Unified School District, and her colleague Debbie Frank say their secondary schools are cooking food from scratch but the elementary schools need more kitchen equipment. Much of the food comes frozen and is reheated, including pizzas and burritos, Kelly says.

"It's pretty bad when we don't want to eat it," Kelly says. "When our hamburgers come, I can't stand the smell. I would like to serve something I'm proud of."

The boot camp is one of several efforts around the country to get more produce and whole grains and more freshly cooked food onto school lunch trays.

Recommendations issued last fall by an Institute of Medicine panel included calorie limits to school meals for the first time, as well as more produce and legumes and less sodium. Nationally, more than 30 million children take part in the National School Lunch Program, and schools get about $2.70 for each lunch served to children who meet thresholds for free meals.

Adamick says she was motivated to take on school food as a writer and consultant by what she learned about obesity and diseases such as the sort of diabetes that once was called adult-onset and "was a consequence of the aging process. Now I've seen a 9-year-old on dialysis."

The boot camp alternates between classroom time and kitchen time. There's none of the rancor found in the reality TV show, " Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," when the British chef set out to reform the school meals in Huntington, W. Va.

Adamick, a chef and lawyer, and Martin, a former New York City schoolteacher and chef, have held their Cook for America boot camps since 2006, training 400 or 500 "lunch teachers" in California, Colorado and elsewhere, Adamick says.

In advance of the Santa Maria camp, Adamick had visited county schools, taking photos to get the lay of the land. The resulting slide show elicits plenty of knowing chatter.

One slide shows a Pepsi dispenser with Pepsi cups. Wait a minute: Hasn't soda mostly been outlawed in California schools?

"California state law doesn't say you can't have Pepsi cups or Pepsi scoreboards or Pepsi dispensers," even if the liquid is tea or lemonade, Adamick says.

She also found cookies twice as big as her hand, doughnuts and packaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. "They have dumbed this down so much that we can't even make our own peanut butter and jelly sandwiches," Adamick says.