KIMBALL - With official school lunch guidelines continuing to evolve, some area school districts are dabbling in their own changes.
"The elementary kids are my target" for new recipes, said Kriston Walsh, head cook in Kimball. "By the time they graduate they will, hopefully, be exposed to new foods and cuisines that they maybe would have never tried before."
At many school districts, menus have been filled with pre-made, heat-and-serve options in the last several years - especially since the 2010 adoption of the Hunger-Free Kids Act, which overhauled school lunch programs for the first time in three decades. The initiative, spearheaded by former first lady Michelle Obama, significantly narrowed nutrition guidelines for schools.
Armour Food Service Director Kathy Metzinger believes that many schools primarily serve packaged meals because they are easier.
"Items have to meet certain criteria for sodium and the number of calories a day or a week for each grade level and have to be whole-grain," she said.
Many food service directors are late in their careers and don't want to deal with the paperwork and figuring all of those nutrients within their recipes, Metzinger said.
"It's just easier to serve a chicken patty on a whole grain bun, green beans and some fruit," said Metzinger, who came into her position last year, after six months as a cook at Armour.
Walsh also became the head cook at Kimball school last year, after staying home with her children and doing various side jobs. She came into the job with a goal to move Kimball students' palates back to craving home-cooked meals.
"I knew I didn't want to open boxes and warm food," she said. "When I cook at home, I cook from scratch almost everything. I want to do that here, but I'm still trying to figure out how to get 300 portions done in the amount of time allotted."
Kimball students on Monday tasted the kitchen's first turkey wraps, made with shredded turkey roasted for other meals and stored in the freezer. Being the end of the school year, younger students' portions were served on tortillas, while high school portions were served on pitas. All were topped with lettuce and shredded cheese.
"I like it," fifth grader Charlee Bass said. "I just wish the meat was warm."
Walsh said students are open about their feelings regarding new recipes.
"Sometimes we fail miserably, but they still eat it, but it's still decent food and kids try new things they may not otherwise," she said. "The ones that I think they won't like, they love, and the ones that I think will be super-easy and normal, they don't care for. I usually get wrinkled noses on new menu items, but then they come back around for seconds," and she knows the meal is a hit.
Walsh often posts photos of her creations at the school, at home and at Kimball's Club Vega, where she works on the weekends, on social media with the hashtag #lunchladyland. She is most often disappointed in the meals' presentations.
"With the amount of time that we have to serve, you throw it on a plate and it doesn't look like what's in my head," she said with a laugh. "It's just maybe not exactly what I pictured it being."
Once, Walsh and her assistant Patti Thayer attempted to make flatbread from scratch.
"I was rolling out dough and pan-cooking as she served it to kids," Walsh said. "It was a disaster."
"We haven't done that one since," Thayer said with a chuckle and a nod, adding that they've learned that some items just need to be made the easier way.
Metzinger said about 50 percent of the meals her kitchen serves are homestyle.
"The littles like their normal chicken nuggets and the older kids like trying new things," she said.
Walsh agreed and said pre-made meals make home cooked recipes possible.
"We need those box-meal days to have the time to do the home-cooking," she said. "Corndog day is an easy day to do a lot of prepping to have better meals for the rest of the week."
One of Kimball students' favorite meals, stromboli, takes several days of easy meals to prepare.
"It takes us four days to make enough for one day," Walsh said, explaining that the process involves making homemade bread and sauce, wrapping it, cooking, cutting and serving it "with burnt fingertips," but students "love it."
With the inspiration of other food service directors, Pinterest and student conversations, Metzinger said she has successfully incorporated several new recipes into the regular menu this year.
"I like to experiment," Metzinger said. "Kids will express where they have had a meal like it. Sometimes kids will come and make suggestions to make it better or add to it. It's pretty fun."
Walsh said her students prefer customizable meals. They love to be able to select their toppings for items like baked potatoes, pasta, hamburgers and hot dogs.
"I vowed to never serve hot dogs, but it's one of my favorite days," because she offers recipes for specialty hot dogs, similar to a hot dog cart in a big city.
It took students a few times to catch on to trying sauerkraut or caramelized onions on their hot dogs, but now it's a favorite day for students, too.
For Metzinger's students, the inspiration for trying new things often comes from how she markets it.
"We will give it a fun theme - celebrating National School Lunch Week, Dr. Seuss' Birthday, 'Tuesday Try Day,' things like that," she said. "I'm always finding new ways to get the kids excited about school lunch."
Walsh said that, while students may make light of her efforts to widen their tastes, persistence pays off.
"Sometimes it takes four or five tries before I get more positive feedback than negative," she said. "Some kids are influenced by their classmates. If they love carrots, but their friend says she doesn't like carrots, now the kid who did, (says they don't). If I hear that, I make sure to tell them, it's ok to not like a food, but don't 'yuck' someone else's 'yum.'"
As she adds more homestyle items to the menu, Walsh said parents are expressing a desire to dine at the school.
"They can," she said. "We love to see the community joining us at lunch."
And she would like to see the community become more involved in the lunch program as a whole.
"Ultimately, I would like to get the menu to at least 80 percent scratch meals with locally produced items," she said, adding that she is looking into a program that allows local beef producers to donate their meat to the school. "We have enough producers in our area I think it would be neat to see that happen for our school district."
Next year, Kimball students will have a direct hand in preparing their own meals. A greenhouse will be built on school grounds this summer, thanks to a farm-to-table grant. Students in the high school agriculture classes will grow produce for the salad bar, and family and consumer sciences students will learn to preserve it for future use.
Recipe for creativity
Both Walsh and Metzinger said they grew up loving to cook.
"I've always liked cooking," said Metzinger, who worked in office settings prior to coming to the school. "My mom taught me a lot."
Walsh had her first taste of commercial cooking at Kimball's senior center. Her grandmother ran the center for 35 years, and she would spend time watching her, then filled in for her a few times in later years.
"It's just like cooking at home - I walk up to the fridge sometimes, figure out what's in there and just make it," Walsh said.
"She can pull stuff out of the fridge and make a meal out of it without effort," Thayer said. "A recipe, to her, is nothing. She can make a meal out of anything and not have a recipe."
Though the two women's schools are just 50 miles apart, they met in Pierre at a food service conference prior to last school year, and they've bounced ideas for their separate programs back and forth ever since. While Walsh credits Metzinger with helping acclimate her to the food service profession, Metzinger gives her credit for some of her kitchen's creations.
"I helped her with regulations and paperwork getting started (and) she helped me get some spreadsheets together," Metzinger said. "We just kind of hit it off."