Guest blogger: School food manufacturer

Who am I? My name is Lisa Suriano.  I’m the Director of Operations for J.C. Food, a school food service management company in the New York metro area.  It is a company my father founded and has operated for 34 years exclusively in independent schools.  I was raised listening to and experiencing the ins and outs of school food service management literally my entire life.  My passion for wholesome food and childhood nutrition lead me to pursue a Master’s of Science in Nutrition.  I will be completing my degree this May!
When thinking over what to write for my guest blog post my mind was overwhelmed with possible topics.  The issues surrounding school food are vast and extremely complex: over processed foods, inadequate or underutilized kitchen equipment, lack of staff training and motivation, lack of funds, lack of nutrition education, potential benefits of school gardens and kitchen classrooms, potential new job creation and/or career advancement . . .
Phew I couldn’t pick one so I decided to take a cue from Mrs. Q and just tell you about the typical lunch we served at one of my schools today:
Here we have a homemade chicken tender.  Children LOVE and are comforted by this food but it is notoriously fried and hormone pumped, processed and refined.  We decided to take this beloved classic and give it a healthy make over.  We marinate anti-biotic and hormone free chicken in plain yogurt and spices over night to increase tenderness and flavor.  Then they are hand breaded in a mixture of whole wheat and panko breadcrumbs with a bit of parmesan cheese. The tenders are quickly baked in a very hot oven and our students gobble them up – lean protein and whole grains! These tenders were served with a homemade applesauce using NY state apples.  This meal is accompanied by simple roasted potatoes. Our staff has been trained to cut, season and roast these potatoes but they can easily be done whole to save time.  We also served fresh green beans and fresh carrots.  I find that children prefer veggies with vibrant colors and a crunch.
In the time that I have been working hands on in the school food industry I have gained a clear understanding of what it takes to produce a successful healthy school lunch and it is very doable. (By “successful” I mean a lunch that the students look forward to, eat and enjoy.) The overarching theme to achieving this is education. 

We are fighting against a fast food industry that is utilizing advertising and brain washing us all. How did this country slow down cigarette smoking? By banning on-air advertising and exposing young people and their parents to the ill effects of smoking. Now I don’t have a problem with fast food companies advertising healthy options. But the constant images of juicy burgers and glistening fries are attacking this country! As was done with smoking, we need to promote the dangers of eating such foods. But changing advertising is not the only answer.  We need:

1.    Nutrition Education: Nutrition has not been a focus of the school curriculum.  However, it is a critical life skill that is not understood by the majority of people.  If it is not being taught in school or practiced in their lives, how can we expect children to make the right food choices?
2.    Food Service Staff Education: In order to serve the desired type of lunches, the people producing them must know how to cook nutritious food. This is a great opportunity to create (much-needed) jobs and re-train current workers.  It is time to elevate the job status of the “Lunch Lady” and give our troops in the kitchen the respect and resources they deserve.  (The wonderful people I work with a proud of what they do. Such a great feeling!)
3.    Manufacturer Education:  It is not possible, nor is it economically responsible to cut out food manufacturers from school lunch.  We need to make clear requirements of the products we want served to our students.  Manufacturers need to be challenged and incentivized to be part of the solution.
Those of us whom are concerned and clamoring for change (our numbers are growing by the day! Just look at what Mrs. Q has accomplished here!) need to demand that our legislators understand and act properly on this issue.  They need to not simply “Band-Aid” the problems and make short-term solutions.  Fixing our food systems is a huge component in fixing our health care system and our economy.  The money we spend today addressing the child nutrition issues will go a long way in fixing the obesity problem and will go a longer way in saving us future dollars on health care.
We have a country full of many great minds; the federal government needs to bring them together and create a long-term plan to insure that our students (our future) are educated to appreciate good, healthy foods.  If not, our struggles with medical care will only grow exponentially.  They will be insurmountable.
I feel the tide turning in the American food industry. I am energized by it. I have been working to make positive change in my corner of the world, and, am truly pleased to feel part of a greater movement.  We need to remember that we are feeding and fueling the future.  Let’s do this the right way!
If you are interested, you can learn more about my approach to school food and nutrition education at:

NOTE: all guest bloggers have contacted me of their own free will, have given consent, do not know me personally, and are not receiving compensation (and neither am I). 

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50 thoughts on “Guest blogger: School food manufacturer

  1. Great post!! Maybe there is hope… but it still seems that money is the biggest road block. I am not sure what an "independent" school is, but it sounds to me like an other way of saying "private" i.e. "has money". I'm off to check out your links, I love your approach!

  2. OMG! The 2 photos today featuring the exact same meal are such a startling contrast. I wonder how the cost compares between the two.

    On a side note, this is exactly how I make "nuggets" at home so what a kick to see "the pros" do it the same way!

  3. Great post and very encouraging!

    While I agree that this lunch probably costs the school a bit more, you need to remember that "independent" also means "no government subsidies." There is no free lunch in private school, so students are paying for it. But it doesn't save the government (i.e., us taxpayers!) any money.

    Also, I'm not sure whether these schools have to follow the USDA guidelines since the lunch is not "reimbursable." So, they don't get to count tater tots as a veggie or ketchup as a veggie or have 2 starches on every plate.

  4. The tenders
    I have never heard the term "the tenders" is that another word for chicken breast…or what does it mean?

  5. This looks so much more appetizing than what my kids regularly get everyday. However, as my pessimistic husband says, it's all about money. Our public schools have to use government subsidized food and contract to have our kids' food "trucked" straight into freezers. Our school district does a better job than most others in that our kids are given more fruit & veggie choices and through the use of whole grain breads & lean meats, such as turkey (hot dogs) as well as offering vegetarian choices most days. However, I've been in their freezer and they are packed with foods that simply need to be reheated rather than freshly cooked. Lots of highly processed foods in the mix, for sure. I also think it's ridiculous that ketchup & tater tots count as veggies. I certainly don't squirt a dollop of ketchup on my kids' plates at home & say they've had a veggie.

  6. Bravo to Lisa for the amazing job she and her company seem to be doing. If more people involved with school food were like her, I think we would be a lot further along to healthier kids.

    However, as said above, the rules (and $$) are different for independent schools and I would love to see a cost comparison to what public schools spend. It would be great if all public schools could hire companies like Lisa's. Better yet, it would be great if all food service companies were like Lisa's.

  7. This looks great, especially compared with Mrs Q's chicken-carrot lunch from yesterday!

  8. Panko breaded chicken nuggets, yeah! This is how I make it for my family. Sometimes I season the panko breading with cheese, while other times I throw in a bit of chipotle seasoning. The herbs added can change the flavor tremendously. GREAT lunch! If this is a sample of what you put out for your schools, I think that you are the minority that are thinking about really our kids & their health.

  9. This is the only picture I've seen so far that I would eat. Keep up the good work!

  10. You'd be shocked at how inexpensive it can be to prepare the food Lisa is talking about and how much hidden cost there is in the processed, nutrient-less garbage that is usually served. If we think about simply and logicially, why should it cost more to purchase real food (which does not have the costs of processing, filling, storage, and transportation all over the globe) built in, than it does to purchase basic whole ingredients. Yes, you may need to hire one or two more people to prep — but more likely you need to hire a consultant to TRAIN your staff. Plus, as Lisa notes, meaningful job creation is not a bad thing in today's economy.

    Independent schools are "private" — yes — but these solutions are not elite. It's about reallocating what you are spending money on. And for every dollar spent on prevention, health, and nutrition, there is an exponential savings on intervention down the road.

    If you are under the impression that healthy, nutritious food is somehow elite, overpriced, or undemocratic, you've likely been spending too much time focused on the commodified and glamourized health food movement. (It can be alluring, I know) — You don't need to spend tons of money on the the so-call healthy (but still processed, packaged)goods. You need to spend time being deliberate about what you feed yourselves and your children.

    Way to Lisa!

  11. Fabulous post!

    "Also, I'm not sure whether these schools have to follow the USDA guidelines since the lunch is not "reimbursable." So, they don't get to count tater tots as a veggie or ketchup as a veggie or have 2 starches on every plate."

    @ Quiltin' Jenny- That was my thought too. I've been following this new food movement for a short time and have a great interest in it. After reading the USDA quidlelines and how they are allowed to be interpreted (ie: tater tots as vegetable, two grain/bread, etc.) I've come to realize that it's the USDA guildines that need a major overhaul. When you can serve a cheese sandwich, tater tots and pretzels all in one meal there's something truly out of wack with the "nutrional" factors in those guidlines.

    Instead of school lunches being held to a USDA standard (United States Department of Agriculture) they should be created and revised by nutrition specialists and dieticians. That's a whole 'nother war to wage on the political process.

  12. I agree with everyone else who said that lunch looks delicious! I'm happy to hear this movement is gaining traction.

  13. That's the prettiest school lunch I've seen in awhile. It reminded me that even university/college campuses don't serve food that looks that "real" and even their cafeterias are filled with processed, pre-packaged, and fast food lunches. Thank you Lisa for posting and for for getting your graduate degree in nutrition and not business admin 😉

  14. Prof Cricket, it's the little piece of white meat next to the bone on the chicken breast. It easily comes off as a separate piece so you can find it in supermarkets sold as that in the US (or you can just buy the whole breast with the bone and tender attached).

  15. Now that is the kind of food I wouldn't mind my children eating at school and similar to the stuff we eat at home. I don't understand why this can't be the norm instead of the exception.

  16. What an inspiring article! I'm excited to hear that there are companies who not only provide nutricious and delicious food to students, but EDCUCATE communities about food choice and health. Eating processed food devoid of nutrients only leaves student unsatisfied and hungry again a couple hours later (when they are even more likely to grub on snack products). We can save money overall if kids are eating less meals of empty calories. Whatsmore, poor nutrition and health have proven effects on concentration and the ability to absorb information. How can we expect students to learn when their brains are under-charged? Lisa is clearly doing amazing work, and I only hope more schools take advantage of her services. Parents: get out there and make it happen!

  17. Lisa – this is a great post and thank YOU Mrs. Q, for doing this – you are one brave woman. I'd love to talk to both of you more…please drop an email if you can!

  18. So…where exactly are these meals being served? It certainly doesn't sound the same as the nugget meal that Mrs. Q. was eating yesterday. If the costs are comparable, the school should be switching to a new food service management company.

  19. Lisa, I think it's wonderful that you grew up in the food business and are now using what you know to help the youth of America. You're knowledge and passion is extremely refreshing and I can only hope people catch on to what you're doing. As someone who has worked in public schools I have seen first hand the types of food that is served to kids. To say the least, it is not nutrious and completely processed. Students and food service staff NEED to be educated on the benefits of healthy food. Thank you very much for this informative post. More than you're typical movie review!

  20. Could we have a bottom line? What is the actual ingredient cost of this meal, and the actual cost of a nuggets/tots/applesauce/carrots/beans meal of equivalent amounts in a typical cafeteria? What are the "independent school" parents paying for this lunch?

  21. Wow, what a great lunch! This is the way I cook at home. So glad to see some schools are paying attention!

  22. Lisa, what kinds of incentives do the food manufacturers respond to? When you say they need to be "challenged and incentivized," my first thought is "What do they listen to and respond to?" I'm sure many other Farm to School programs would like to know, too! We'd be grateful for your advice!

  23. As a preschool teacher in an inner city in NJ I can say first hand that this is not at all the type of lunch my students are served but exactly what I wish they WOULD be served. Having seen the red tape and politics that are involved in various school settings I understand the difficulties that arise when trying to change things but there have been big changes in the past and there will be big changes in the future. I totally agree that educating the students as well as the people that are making the decisions regarding school lunches is vital to the success of this movement. There are uneducated people making these important decisions all across our country. They need to be informed and empowered. Keep up the incredible work Lisa…..and come make the lunches at our school!

  24. As a first time commenter, I first have to of course thank Mrs. Q for this amazing blog. It's so encouraging to see people getting fired up about this stuff!

    I must say though (and this will sound backwards at first, so bare with me) but nutrition education is part of the problem. Kids aren't taught nutrition in schools, they are taught the food pyramid which, as per the latest redesign, is a joke. There is no practical application and they certainly aren't seeing any balanced meals in the cafeteria. On the otherside of the spectrum, people become too bogged down in carbs and HDL and LDL and lean protien and sugar types that they don't know healthy from not. Two examples to illustrate my point: A dieting co-worker who is persuing her Master's degree asked me the other day if raisins were healthy. My boyfriend, who works in the health insurance industry, was told my his boss that if a child is sitting in front of his X-Box all day it doesn't matter if he drinks milk or soda, he just needs to become more active. Another co-worker chimed in that the soda has caffiene in it and might even give the child the energy to get off of the couch.

    These are well educated adults in the healthcare system. Our nutrition education has failed us to the point where adults cannot tell whole foods from processed or discern the importance of macro-nutrients, let alone know why certain vitamins might be important to developing children. And even worse, they are apathetic. They spout absurd defenses that their freedom of choice is being taken away – "if my child wants French fries, he should be allowed to have French fries!" What are we to do in the face of such ignorance and adversity?

  25. Very interesting and informative blog. I agree that there is a noticeable positive shift in the American food industry. And what better way to emphasize and promote it than with the children in schools. I think your suggestions of increased nutritional education in our schools (children, staff, manufacturers) are great. This message must reach the state and federal officials. Keep up the great work!

  26. Lisa,

    Is it possible for you to tell us what that plate of food costs you to create? Not what the schools pay put your bottom line — the cost of the foods and the costs of preparation & delivery?

    I applaud you and your business. But it makes me really sad that people have to be "trained to cut, season and roast a potato". I think this is part of the overall problem, so very few people cook from scratch any more. Few know how to do it or what it looks like.

  27. Hi Lisa,

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge on the food industry with regards to school lunches. I appreciate your passion for the topic and believe the reason you hold such high standards towards healthy school lunches is perhaps because you were raised in such an environment that nutrition takes priority so why not make it fun! Your passion at such an early age perfectly exemplifies the need to instill the same enthusiam for healthy food options in our children. Preparing kids a healthy menu during the school day will inevitably turn around postive results as they mature. As a result, children will grow up making healthier choices in every aspect of life.
    I recently began educating myself on healthier food alternatives such as Lisa's chicken tender recipe to serve my twins, Peg & Bob ages 7. As parents, we have the obligation to our children to instill healthy eating habits and it would sure be nice if schools could lend a helping hand towards our efforts. 🙂

  28. Actually, the advertising is based on your past browsing and the location of your IP. Because I am in Israel and I read a lot of mom blogs, get emails about my kids, etc., I get Huggies ads in Hebrew. That's how google works (google owns blogspot, the host of this blog).

  29. Looks great!

    Do the kids get forks and knives? I'd think Mrs Q's plastic spork would have a hard time with the chicken or the potatoes. Then again, maybe the yogurt does an excellent job tenderizing the chicken, and the potatoes are well and truly done?

  30. I suppose at a private school the meal funding is part of the tuition, but it would be interesting to hear more about the differences in cost, staffing, numbers of students, time to eat, all the factors that have been part of the discussion so far. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the differences are not as extreme as might be thought? Maybe local districts could be convinced to put forth a bit more funding and time to the meal programs?

    Also, a couple of the comments got me wondering about what the perfect meal pattern or requirements would be?

  31. Hi Everyone! Thank you for all of the wonderful and encouraging comments! I am so grateful for Mrs. Q and this blog for helping to further this issue that I care so deeply about.

    To answer some questions posted:
    – The food cost of this plate is under $1.
    It is important to note that when we are budgeting a week or a month of menus, we don't just consider a single meal's cost but the average cost over the week or month. Our experience has taught us that looking at it that way allows us to have more expensive lunches balanced out by less expensive lunches (i.e. pasta – I am a big fan of Barilla PLUS) The labor cost is very variable. Factors of basic wages, offered benefits, staff size based on operational needs, available equipment and employee experience all contribute to this. It is really difficult to pinpoint a single number for that.

    – Because we operate independently we are not required to follow the government's nutritional guidelines. The picture you see is the food that a 5 grade student requested from the hot line. I believe that if you offer good food to children the nutrition will follow.

    – By "incentivize manufacturers" I mean explain to them the types of products that we want to use and let them know that if they produce this you will commit to buy X amount of cases per year. For instance, this apple sauce. I worked directly with the manufacturer on packing this for my schools. I explained that I was looking for local apples, unsweetened, and shipped in bulk pouches to reduce packaging waste. Small food companies will be willing to work with you. Larger ones can be more resistant. However, I believe that if offered a National School Lunch contract, the big players would be willing to do more of what the public demands. We NEED to KEEP demanding it!

  32. I'm so jealous! Your food looks and sounds so much better than what we serve at my school district. I can't remember the exact number, but I know to serve three of the weirdly processed chicken tenders, it costs us under $.30. It's hard to beat that price (taking into account both ingredients and labor), but what is our benefit if we spend more…our children's lives!

  33. Your food is lovely! Like a fine restaurant.
    I cannot find anything on the internet in regards to how much it would cost if my 5th grader called your hot line and had a meal delivered?
    "The picture you see is the food that a 5 grade student requested from the hot line. I believe that if you offer good food to children the nutrition will follow." Please share, how much did the meal cost the parent? Do you do offer sliding scale fees for low income students? How much would it cost to serve 300-400 students at lunchtime? This information is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT to the future of public school lunch.

  34. Ms. Suriano, you're an inspiration to me, as is Ms. Q. Thank you for what you're doing at your company. Are you teaching others? How can we broaden your influence?

  35. Thanks for the further info on costs. Yes, understood that there are a lot of variables that go into the costs as far as time, equipment and labor.

    Another thought that came to mind when Lisa mentioned working with vendors & local entities to contract for the food – public schools might want to consider giving resources (personnel & time) to do such outreach and negotiations. A valuable thought.

  36. This is a great post! Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts with us! It's nice to see children in some schools receiving healthy and thoughtfully prepared meals!

  37. This is a beautiful meal! Unfortunately, public schools rely on NSLP reimbursements and must follow strict guidelines. This meal would not qualify for reimbursement in my school, but it's a GREAT start in the right direction!

  38. The meal looks fabulous…except NYC public schools are not allowed to have any uncooked/raw meat in their kitchens. It must come in frozen. It would be great if schools could marinate and cook thier own meat, because then at least parents would know where the meat comes from.

  39. Wow. It's a really nice surprise to show that healthy (and tasty) food can be possible, although from looking through comments, it's a pity that this isn't really feasible in public schools 🙁

  40. I can't stop thinking about the the differences! (Mrs. Q, are you envious of the resources in private schools as far as the classroom?)

    I was curious about Lisa's comment about the students choosing good foods if available. I was wondering if there are limits to the foods, any type of guidance?

    I do also wonder, in a broader sense, where to start to make the changes most posters here call for? Is the school meal program the place to start? Or will the school meal program change when the customers (students and parents) want the kind of foods called for by the posters here? Where do was start to pull apart all the interconnected elements?

  41. Lisa,

    Thanks so much for the info on your costs. We send our son to a private school and hot lunch is provided by an outside small cooking business. Lunch is $5 and there is NOTHING like this meal ever provided. And many of the parents tell me what others have written here — "but it's better than it was 2 years ago". Bleck. I'm going to try to have some discussions with the lunch provider & principal and try to get some changes made. We live in a place where it is possible to find local providers for lots of the food and it CAN be made better.

    Lisa, have you ever thought of writing a cookbook for private schools to use? Keep up the great work.

  42. Hi, you mentioned the plate cost of the food was $1. How much does the lunch cost?

  43. Me again! Sorry for the delayed response to ?s. It was a very busy day at work for me yesterday.

    I want to again thank everyone for the kind words of support and encouragement! This can be an uphill battle and knowing there are like-minded folks out there is energizing!

    To clarify some things:
    By "hot line" I meant the cafeteria line that serves hot food. All of our meals are made on site in the schools. Lunch is part of the tuition.

    This is what makes it nearly impossible for me to give you a single cost for lunch. The figure of under $1 I gave is the cost of the raw product of the items on the plate you see. As I stated earlier the variables influencing labor cost are numerous. Each operation we run has different needs and goals, thus effecting overall cost. However, I will venture to say that I believe as many others have said an additional $1 given to the $2.68 that the government allots now would go a way in achieving vastly improved meals. I dont know if there is any variation in the allocation according to age. Is there? I mean obviously a high schooler eats more than a kindergardener. Can anyone tell me if this a factor in public schools?

    Some have asked about guidance and furthering my mission. I have developed nutrition education programs that are expanding everyday and meeting some awesome success! I also have the wonderful ability to work one-on-one with students, parents and nurses.

    Finally, just a comment about the public school restrictions. Again this is NOT something I am well versed in but what I have heard I find to be bureaucratic and oftentimes illogical. i.e. ketchup = a vegetable??? This is why I believe a change in the laws and the system is necessary. What we do in our kitchens IS feasible in public school kitchens, most certainly. There just needs to be a national investment in the program and a rethinking of how it operates.

  44. Lisa, thank you again for your further comments.

    I would like to mention that ketchup is not considered a vegetable in the school meal planning patterns. A bit of an urban legend, I guess, for lack of a better term.

    Another item that raises questions are "starchy" vegetables (such as corn and potatoes). Under the current regulations, it is correct that French fries and other types of potatoes, along with corn, do fall under the vegetable category.

    You are right, it is indeed bureaucratic at times. However, sometimes incomplete, misunderstood and simply incorrect information is presented as well which further adds to the confusion.

    For those interested in making changes to the meal programs, all current info about the meal programs can be found on-line, which may assist in helping to see what suggestions could be presented to make positive changes under the current regulations as well as what some higher level, long range goals should be.

  45. Dear Lisa,

    I too work in the private-independant school sector. I am the food service director for an "A" list school, and for privacy and policy reasons I cannot divulge names.

    I can say however that I have worked in this particular school for 16 years. During this time I have seen the evolution of "food awareness", as I like to call it. We've been through the vegetarian movement, the increase of allergy students, the organic crusade, and thanks to the food network, kids are more attune to whats happening in the food world.

    We have been practicing your approach of healthy choices and educating the students on the food they are eating for many years. I find that the kids are much more likely to try new items when they are introduced in a fun, unintimidating way. Kids, even more so than adults, respond to bright colors and attractive plating. I like to go around with little tastings. The kids are more likely to try something if they know they dont have to commit to a whole portion. It's also a good way to get feedback from them, as they are always quick and excited to let you know what they think and also gives me a chance to answer questions.

    I love the posters you have on your veggiecation website by the way.

    So, although I know I haven't shed any new light or suggestions on the public lunch dilemma, I can say that kids are kids, public or private. The key is educating them and getting them excited at an early age so that they take that home with them.

    Good luck with your campaign for wholesome food and education in the schools. This is definatley an issue worth fighting for.

    p.s. Why haven't you hooked up with Jamie Oliver?

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