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.
Baltimore County ripped deep-fat fryers out of five secondary schools over the summer and replaced them with ovens to serve lower-fat oven fries. Because whole-wheat pizza crust flopped with Howard County kids last year, that district just rolled out a new crust made with "white whole wheat" flour, a milder-tasting whole grain. At Hereford Middle School, the cafeteria has started using the fruit, vegetables and eggs - a flock of 12 chickens produces about 70 a week - raised in agri-sciences classes.
And across the state last week, schools participated in Maryland Homegrown Week by serving local produce.
But nowhere are the changes more sweeping than in Baltimore, which may have further to go than more affluent districts to make lunches healthful.
"We don't do pre-plate." said Mary Klatko, Howard's director of food and nutrition services. "That's like a TV dinner. That's yuck."
Geraci could not agree more. "Our plan is to get away from those frozen, nasty pre-plate meals by January."
Hired last year, Geraci has gained the most attention for creating a 33-acre organic farm to teach students about healthful foods. Work there continues. On Saturday, 75 donated fuit trees were planted. Next month, the school district will seek bids to create an "agri-hospitality" charter school on the site. By winter, Geraci hopes to be raising tilapia there.
The newest front in Geraci's campaign is considerably less pastoral but no less ambitious. It involves a fleet of refrigerator trucks, steam tables and an old warehouse on Pulaski Highway.
The trucks, purchased with grant money, pick up nectarines, apples and other produce at Maryland farms. The steam tables are being installed in school kitchens, most of which are so ill-equipped that "cooking kitchens" are the exception. Purchased for $500,000, they will allow workers to prepare fresh vegetables and assemble some meals, though cooking meat will still be beyond the means of most kitchens.
That's where the warehouse comes in. Geraci hopes to create a central kitchen where cooks can prepare whole, local foods, then send them to school cafeterias for assembly or reheating. Once used to store city office furniture, the 37,000-square-foot building needs about $3 million in renovations. City and state governments are working with him to come up with federal stimulus money, he said.
The warehouse would be outfitted with large freezers and refrigerators, which Geraci said would reduce or eliminate the need to pay for cold food storage.
"We'll spend $600,000 this year storing stuff locally," he said. "If we spend $500,000 on adequate refrigeration in a building we already own, we can eliminate that cost and that savings gets spread out over our kids."
The district has been paying not only to store food in freezers, but to have that food delivered to schools.
"We're paying $6.50 a case to move our own product around - the stupidest thing I've ever seen," Geraci said.
Not that long ago, the money-saving mantra in Baltimore was outsourcing, and no one knows that better than Keith Scroggins, the school system's chief operating officer. He was head of the city's Department of General Services in 2004 when then-Mayor Martin O'Malley hired private contractors for janitorial and security services in the city's 10 largest buildings. That saved the city millions, but taking delivery and storage functions in-house could do likewise for the school system, he said.
"We want to bring storage in-house, eliminate the delivery costs," Scroggins said. "If we have the people on our workforce, we can deliver as many packages as we want as many times as we want a day."
Buying local produce is also promoted as a way to save money, while providing students with fresher, more healthful food.
Maryland apples cost the district $6 a case, compared with $56 a case for Washington-grown apples available to schools through the Defense Department, which handles some commodities, said Mahoney, the district's dietitian and chef. The apples keep well, so those harvested in the fall are good through spring, she said.
Meatless Mondays are meant to be both a money-saver and a nutritional boost. Vegetarian entrees, including black bean nachos, eggplant Parmesan and baked potatoes with broccoli and cheese, still provide plenty of protein, Mahoney said.
Meatless Mondays tap into a national campaign conceived six years ago at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Public Health as a way to improve people's diets. The campaign took off more recently after Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," praised it on Oprah Winfrey's talk show as a way to cut down on the environmental impact of intensive animal production. Some schools, including a couple of Baltimore County middle schools, have experimented with Meatless Monday programs, but Baltimore is thought to be the first to do it systemwide.
"They're the only school district we know of," said Ralph Loglisci, director of the Healthy Monday Project at Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future.
In the Hampstead Hill cafeteria on the initial Meatless Monday, 12-year-old twins Davon and Dashawn Gray had their first taste of lasagna and nectarines. They liked the fruit and said the pasta was good, but conceded they'd rather have had a hamburger or pizza.
But 12-year-old Brandon Hovermill declared the lasagna "actually, you know, kinda better" than his grandmother's. (As it turns out, grandma buys hers ready-made.)
Hovermill added, "I love the new variety they give out, and I'm glad we're at a school where there are people who would take the time and actually make it right."