A behind-the-scenes look at culinary bootcamp

  (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

And then there's the boogeyman for school food reformers: chicken nuggets.

"Does anybody know what's in a chicken nugget? Does anybody know how chicken nuggets are made?" Adamick asks, showing another slide, this one with an extruded pile of pink stuff that looks a little like strawberry frozen yogurt but which she says is going to become nuggets.

Another slide shows a meal of corn chips with cheese sauce, French fries and refried beans. "Do I really want to pay for this?" she asks.

In the kitchen, basics are on the syllabus: Dry heat (baking) versus moist heat (poaching), for instance. And ways not to cook (frying).

Efficiency is essential. The students, all dressed in white chef's jackets and black and white striped caps, line chicken parts on sheet trays knowing exactly how many pieces are on each pan (42 wings, 20 breasts or 24 thighs), so in the rush of lunch they can count pans, not parts. Pasta is cooked al dente, drained, tossed with oil and spread on a sheet pan to freeze for the next day.

In addition to per-meal reimbursements, schools can get nearly free food from the government, including raw chicken, turkey, beef and pork. Many districts, Adamick says, "take their free chicken and send it to Tyson and pay them to turn it into nuggets. That makes no sense."

In Martin's kitchen, pork gets roasted, made into a rice bowl or barbecued. Chicken gets roasted with herbs or marinated in a sauce.

Many schools shy away from handling raw meat because of worries about food safety. In boot camp, there are constant reminders about safe handling of food and little sanitizing buckets everywhere.

But, Martin says, making food safe isn't enough.

"We can't expect kids to try things that they don't normally eat if you don't prep them in a way that they have visual appeal," she says.

One day, she holds a red plastic cafeteria tray with three rows, each containing yellow wax beans, broccoli and carrots sliced on the diagonal — all school salad bar ingredients. The first row is marked raw, the second and most appealing marked blanched and the third, with overcooked, grayish vegetables marked R.I.P.

"If you're putting out R.I.P. anywhere in your operation and you're saying kids won't eat it," Martin says, pausing before adding: "My dog wouldn't eat it."

Adamick also is a money hunter. Plastic cups for holding a piece of cake? Nine cents apiece. Dried beans are cheaper than canned, and they save the effort of opening and disposing of the cans. Corn dogs, French fries? Stop paying for the processing.

In Santa Barbara County, the Orfalea Fund, a foundation based in Santa Barbara that supports the boot camps and provides follow-up training once the staff returns to their schools, as well as grants for equipment such as huge immersion blenders.

The Santa Maria-Bonita School District has sent more than two dozen of its staff members to the boot camps and has started making salad dressings and sauces from scratch and roasting fresh vegetables, says Liz Powell, food services director. Since the boot camp, she has also switched to brown rice from white. The district, which feeds 16,000 children, makes its own pizza.

Santa Maria now buys 80% of its produce locally, Powell says. That's added to food costs, "but not by anything outrageous."

Other districts in the county are making changes too.

Kristie Barrios, from Alvin Elementary School, and Trudy Mendiola, from El Camino Junior High, say their schools have stopped serving French fries and instead offer baked sweet potato "fries" — which, they admit, the children take some time getting used to.

But Adamick tells them not to give in to parents or officials who argue for school food that mimics what they buy in fast food outlets — even if the kids say that's what they want. "It doesn't mean your food isn't good," she says. "It's their learning process."