Kathy Del Tonto started cooking school food 30 years ago in the Montrose school district at the foot of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. Back then, the cafeteria workers made everything from scratch.
“My first kitchen that I managed was a little country school out south of town, and we made our own ketchup and everything,” she says.
But times changed. Families started eating more fast food, and processing companies started offering schools fast-food kinds of choices. The companies would take the food that the U.S. Department of Agriculture gives to schools, turn it into chicken nuggets and other processed items kids want, and then send it to cafeterias — for less than cooking it on site would cost.
Del Tonto went along with it. “By doing processed food you can cut your labor because you don’t have to do the hard cooking, or you’re just reheating and that kind of thing,” she explains.
Increasingly, though, the movement to reduce childhood obesity by improving what kids eat in school has changed the game. It means schools are now required to serve more fresh fruits and vegetables. And there’s a movement within the movement that promotes the retro notion of cooking meals from scratch. And that takes a change in the hearts and minds of those behind the lunch line.