By Claud Mann
Let’s be honest, a great grilled cheese sandwich is one of the most wholly satisfying food experiences possible. At its best, it arrives at the table warm and evenly golden, crisp on the outside, with a blanket of melted cheese just peaking from the edges. As with many great pleasures, grilled cheese is deceptively simple. A few slices of Cheddar nestled between two pieces of buttered bread. Grill, flip and serve. What could be easier?
For numerous reasons, in a school food setting, most schools with “grilled” cheese on the menu serve a pre-made processed cheese sandwich that is heated while still in its plastic wrapper. Loosely speaking, it can still be considered a grilled cheese sandwich. (Using that same logic, one might suppose Milli Vanilli could have been considered a talented “singing” duo.)
Liz Powell, Director of Nutrition Services for Santa Maria Bonita Unified School District feeds close to 15,000 students a day. For years she has been on the receiving end of student complaints about pre-packaged cheese sandwiches. Kids comment on the “fake cheese taste,” the fact that the bread is usually dry and tough, and how, when the cheese cools, it hardens into something akin to the plastic in which it is wrapped.
None of this surprises Liz. She has been in the business long enough to know that students prefer the taste of real food. She has also found that staff morale improves when food service workers serve meals they can truly be proud of. These factors, combined with Liz’s vision of gradually incorporating more unprocessed foods into all the meals coming out of Santa Maria Bonita school cafeterias, gave her the impetus to move to a scratch recipe for her grilled cheese. The Orfalea Foundation cinched the deal with a mutually agreed upon grant stipulation that included switching to scratch-made grilled cheese sandwiches as part of the terms of the grant.
In addition to the obvious improvement in taste and texture, scratch preparation offers the added benefit of controlling the quality of ingredients and eliminating a myriad of food additives like artificial colors and flavors, stabilizers, preservatives, and the unhealthful quantities of salt, sugar and fat found in most processed foods. Liz’s decision to make the move from pre-packaged cheese sandwiches to made from scratch was fairly easy. Putting all the pieces in place was anything but.
Examining the procedure behind adding a simple item like grilled cheese to a school menu helps to answer the often heard question: “why can’t schools just serve better food?” In the case of Santa Maria Schools, the logistics of shifting to scratch cooking for just one sandwich means enlisting the collaboration of entire departments, including the main warehouse staff that now has to stage multiple products, rather than a single prepackaged product.
The process must also begin up to 4 days in advance, gathering and portioning cheese, bread and butter, plus preparing sheet pans. On the day of service, Liz’s staff sets up a production assembly line – skills learned and practiced at The Orfalea Foundation’s Culinary Boot Camp. Many, many hours later, the sandwiches are finally ready for cooking. The actual cooking time? Same as the prepackaged sandwich: about 4 1/2 minutes.
Is it worth it? Liz and her staff say it is: “Working hard to do what is ultimately best for our students (our customers) is what it’s all about.”
Here is Liz’s shopping list for your next grilled cheese night with a few friends:
- 26,670 pieces of whole grain bread
- 1,250 pounds of sliced cheddar cheese
- 208 pounds of butter
- Lots of hard work, plus TLC
(Yield: 13,335 sandwiches)
Claud Mann is a Chef Instructor for the Orfalea Foundation School Food Initiative.