Sweet potato roux in macaroni and cheese? Yes, it's a school lunch created by Julie Holbrook, food service director for Keene Central School and a member of Keene Support Staff Association. She is among the many NYSUT food service professionals making school meals healthier.
Holbrook, for example, makes her own granola, tomato sauce and whole wheat chocolate chip cookies, 400 at a time, for the 166 students who attend the K-12 school in the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks. She saves the school money and improves nutrition by making pizza. Snacks are juice, cheese sticks and yogurt. The only drink now available in vending machines is water.
"Even a big school can make changes," she said. "Introduce one new item a month."
More focus will be put on school cafeterias now that President Obama has signed the $4.5 million Hunger-Free Kids Act. Representing the first increase in funding for school lunches in 30 years, the act will give children better access to healthier food, will provide more money for free and reduced-price lunch and will give the government more say over the kinds of foods that are offered.
About 1.7 million students — 57 percent of the student population in New York state — eat a school lunch every day, and for some, it might be the one full meal they have.
"School-Related Professionals who work in cafeterias are another example of the entire school community coming together to create a safe and healthy learning environment for students," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue.
Recent statistics show that one in four New Yorkers younger than 18 is obese, and NYSUT members are teaming up to change that, Donahue said.
At a suburban Syracuse school, rice and couscous have essentially knocked french fries and potato rounds off the menu, says Mary DeTomaso, cook/manager and food service representative in Walberta Park Elementary School. "We make [these dishes] with either low-sodium chicken or beef broth," said DeTomaso, a member of the Westhill Employees Union.
When the school orders its ground beef from the U.S. Department of Agriculture government commodity program, it has applesauce added for hamburgers and meatballs, making meals less fatty and with fewer fillers, she said.
Farm-to-school food also is catching on in many districts. Holbrook's budget pays farmers to grow watermelon, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and other food for the school. She also buys grass-fed beef and eggs from a local farmer.
To combat obesity, she makes healthy menu choices with the help of school nurse Kristine Gay and Family and Consumer Sciences teacher Laura Eldred, both members of the Keene Central School Teachers Association. Students need what Holbrook calls "brain food."
When she serves it to them, she dishes out education, telling them why they need the protein in the chicken they are about to eat, and why it is healthier than a chicken nugget loaded with fat and cartilage.
"My job is to make sure teachers have students ready to learn," she said.
At Somers School District, Westchester County, fresh produce is grown in the school garden started five years ago by Madeline Manzella, a teacher's aide and member of the Somers School-Related Personnel union. Manzella was NYSUT's 2010 SRP of the Year.
After the first growing season, the school held a "salad day" and fed nearly 1,000 students and staff with bounty from the garden. "Soup day" followed in the fall.
Manzella's garden project has since won a $10,000 grant from the Somers Education Foundation to build a greenhouse. Now, on a daily basis, she brings baskets of garden food to the cafeteria to supplement the menu. Her efforts are buoyed by parents and volunteers.
Nutrition education at Somers includes displaying in the cafeteria bottled drinks next to jars of sugar that show how much of the highly caloric white stuff each drink contains.