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Local, Vegetarian Food Arrives at City Schools

 Local, Vegetarian Food Arrives at City Schools

schools are sourcing their food locally.

Laura Vozzella | The Baltimore Sun

A minor revolution, in the form of cheese lasagna, had come to the cafeteria at Hampstead Hill Academy, but the struggle had only just begun.

Kitchen staff accustomed to heating pre-made meals had to wrestle with sticky pasta noodles, then brace for balky eaters on this, the first “Meatless Monday” for Hampstead Hill and other Baltimore public schools. On Mondays throughout the year, cafeteria menus will be all vegetarian – a first for city schools and, it’s believed, any large school system nationwide.

Meatless Mondays and the “assembly cooking” involved in putting together meals such as that lasagna are just two of the lunchtime innovations in city schools this year. Local produce is in, thanks to bid specifications calling exclusively for Maryland fruits and vegetables. Highly processed “pre-plate” meals and commodities from the U.S. government are on the way out.

“It’s … a work in progress and, yeah, we have glitches every day,” said Tony Geraci, the system’s director of food and nutrition. “But now it’s no longer a novelty. It’s an expectation.”

Geraci has larger ambitions. He has built a fleet of refrigerated trucks and plans a big central kitchen and even a fish farm at the district’s organic garden.

To be sure, scratch cooking and the eradication of chicken nuggets are not at hand. “We don’t want to start any revolt and have flames and pitchforks up at the central office,” said Mellissa Mahoney, dietitian and chef for Baltimore schools.

But city school lunches are moving in that direction, and attracting national attention, including a visit last week by assistant White House chef Sam Kass and U.S. Department of Education officials to Hampstead Hill, a public charter school near Patterson Park. They ate lunch in the cafeteria and sampled eggplant dip that students had made with vegetables and herbs from the school’s garden.

“We eat a lot of school lunches, as you can imagine. This is extraordinary.” Matthew Yale, deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education, said over his whole-wheat crust pizza, fresh salad, nectarine and skim milk.

Lunch has been getting a makeover in lots of schools in Maryland and across the nation, a reaction to rising childhood obesity rates, growing nutritional awareness and the local-foods movement.