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Originally posted August 21, 2012
Griceda Gonzalez (left) and Erma Perez train to make bread, one of the new menu items at Union High School on Thursday. STEPHEN PINGRY/Tulsa World
BY NICOLE MARSHALL MIDDLETON Tulsa World Scene Writer
(Reprinted with Permission. This is not an endorsement.)
Students who see Eli Huff walking the halls of the new Union Collegiate Academy call him chef.
And the school staff members are anxious to stop him and discuss his latest culinary creations.
The first day of school is Monday, but Huff's new health-conscious menus have already received good grades.
"The thing that we have been hearing the most is that it just doesn't taste like school food," said Lisa Griffin, director of food service for the district.
Union Public Schools hired Huff, owner of the food-serving consulting firm Salt Inc., to work with Griffin and revamp the menus at all 18 schools in the system. In addition to outfitting the school's new state-of-the-art kitchen purchased with bond funds, Huff and Griffin worked to create nine new dining concepts and a catering kitchen.
Some lucky tasters - parents, staff, alumni and some students - have had the chance to try the new food during the summer break.
The concepts feature a variety of different cuisine including Wok Works, Marcado de Salsa, Basil's Cafe, BBQ Specialties, the Deli, Sports CAFEnergy Bar for smoothies and snacks, the Cyber Cafe and a Panini Grill where students can special-order their own sandwiches.
And as large of an undertaking as that may sound, it was especially challenging to create desirable menus for high school students under the new federal nutrition guidelines that took effect July 1.
Huff calls the operation Oklahoma's food revolution.
"There is nothing like this anywhere in the state of Oklahoma, and very few schools in the nation have pulled off what we are about to do at Union," said Huff, a 1997 Union graduate.
The new nutrition guidelines that Union and other schools will abide by are goals of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which aims to improve school nutrition. This legislation authorized funding and sets policy for USDA's core child-nutrition programs.
School lunch workers throughout the state have been receiving training on the new regulations, said Charlotte Richert, Tulsa County OSU extension director.
"This has really been a first to have this kind of training through the USDA, which is our federal partner," Richert said.
Here are some of the new requirements provided by Richert:
A wider variety of vegetables should be offered weekly, including dark green, red/orange and starchy, as well as beans and legumes.
Fruit is offered daily, including fresh, frozen with no added sugar, canned in water or natural juice, and 100 percent juice.
Every meal includes at least 1/2 cup of fruit and/or vegetables, and kids can select more at no additional cost.
More whole grains are available, including whole-grain-rich breads, cereals and pastas.
School meals are prepared without the use of trans fat.
Richert said the goal is to help students have better health and better grades.
"Food is just a piece of a much larger picture. Research shows that kids who are well nourished tend to have higher scores on their tests," Richert said.
From cafeteria line to farm-fresh cuisine
Union High School formerly served from a regular cafeteria line offering sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, pizza and a few entrees, plus two kiosks with prepared sandwiches and pizza slices. A well-kept 1976-era oven still operates in the original kitchen as a reminder of the school's culinary history.
By modernizing the menus, the goal at the Collegiate Academy was to make the food choices more grown-up and chef-driven. However, the prices remain affordable - in the $2 to $3 range to cover food costs.
And Huff, the former executive chef at Crave and Tsunami Sushi, and chef-proprietor at Oscar's Gastropub, has also incorporated the farm-to-table concept that is popular at so many restaurants now.
"Peach Crest Farm of Stratford will be growing about 40 percent of our produce next year for the schools ... sweet potatoes, onions, melons, broccoli, basil for pesto, cucumbers ... all locally grown," Huff said. "We also have a company that is making our pizza dough from Oklahoma Cracked Wheat in Alva."
But Griffin and Huff said that the full demand for the new foods won't be known until the students and staff arrive and learn what there is to offer.
Part of the reason for building the new Collegiate Academy addition to Union High School was because the entire 10th-grade class - about 1,100 students - joined the school this year.
Previously, about 400 to 500 students ate lunch on campus. But the lunch load is guaranteed to triple because sophomores can't leave campus for their 35-minute breaks, said Tony Tempest, assistant principal of the Collegiate Academy.
Juniors and seniors get anywhere from 30 to 55 minutes for lunch, Tempest said.
"It will be a lot easier for them to grab something here," Huff said. "And we hope once they learn what we have, they will want to stay."
Union Public Schools has revamped the menus of all 18 schools in the system. The new menus include items such as Jalapeno Beef Street Tacos with tomatillo salsa. STEPHEN PINGRY/Tulsa World