After feeding thousands of tiny mouths in her lifetime, Cindy Saffery knows the most important ingredient when cooking for children: love.
Saffery is the cafeteria manager for three schools on Oahu’s Waianae Coast, where there’s high concern about diabetes and childhood obesity, especially among Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islander students.
Schoolchildren nationwide share those health concerns, which have led to a demand for healthier cafeteria food. The Hawaii Department of Education is heeding that call by launching an ambitious program that requires that a majority of its entrees be made from scratch in the upcoming new school year. It’s a trend that’s growing nationwide.
"It’s hard work, but I believe it’s more tastier when it’s made from scratch," Saffery said. "It’s like feeding our own children."
Starting in August, 15 entrees in the 25-day monthly menu cycle will be made from scratch in Hawaii public schools, where 100,000 meals are served daily in the nation’s 10th-largest school system and the only statewide district in the country.
"The mission is to have less processed food and use basic ingredients instead of opening up a box and heating up something," said Glenna Owens, director of the school food services branch. The district already serves about 10 entrees from scratch but the new initiative moves toward making a majority of the meals that way.
While Hawaii cafeteria workers aren’t trading hairnets for chef’s hats, Saffery said her staff is willing to put in the extra work that comes with more cooking.
Food service directors nationwide say cooking from scratch is ideal yet challenging because of high labor costs, limited equipment and technical concerns such as handling raw meat. There’s also the challenge of making meals that appeal to picky young eaters.
"A lot of programs do struggle to move toward scratch cooking," said Diane Pratt-Heavner, spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, a Maryland-based group that represents school nutrition professionals. She confirmed the effort is becoming a trend nationwide.
Margo Wootan, director for nutrition policy for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, said she doesn’t know of any other district that requires a majority of its lunch entrees to be made from scratch. Hawaii’s effort is ambitious and admirable, she said, but she cautioned that cooking from scratch doesn’t automatically translate into better food: "I don’t know of any evidence that shows cooking from scratch is healthier than if you don’t cook from scratch."
Owens agreed but said she prefers Hawaii’s students eat healthy food made from scratch instead of any processed food.
"I’m a purist when it comes to food," she said, although she acknowledged that it is not realistic for the district to eventually make all food from scratch.
She believes cooking from scratch is the best way to serve island-style favorites like kalua pork with cabbage, teriyaki chicken and curry stew. There’s still plenty of standard cafeteria fare, like pizza and corndogs, on Hawaii’s menus.
Saffery said the kalua pork is made without any salt — unheard of in Hawaii households.
"We’re going back to the old days when we mostly cooked from scratch," she said after a hurried lunch hour of feeding 900 students at Leihoku Elementary made-from-scratch chili with rice, another meal popular among Hawaii families. The school’s version is made with ground beef that’s 75 percent soy protein, and the rice is brown — not that the kids know, or seem to care.
As the students passed through the line, many affectionately greeted the workers by calling them "Auntie." Saffery said many of the cafeteria ladies have served generations of Hawaii kids.
"A lot of them come from the old school when we used to cook more," she said. "They were the ones resistant to serving processed food."
But Daniel Leung, educational specialist for Kapiolani Community College’s highly rated culinary arts program, worries that recent workers don’t have the same cooking skills.
"The school food services managers don’t require culinary training," he said. "We see technical problems with that."
The recipes are standardized, Owens said, meant to be executed by anyone.
Dr. May Okihiro, a pediatrician at the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center and director of the Hawaii Initiative for Childhood Obesity Research and Education, said cooking healthier versions of homemade favorites in school can help balance Hawaii’s attitudes toward food.
"In Hawaii we value food as an expression of gratitude and love. It’s a thank-you gift, it’s a love gift," she said. "So serving good food in large quantities is showing that we value children."