This week, Fairfax County Public Schools' lunch program was in the news for
switching from an all-beef hamburger back to an additive-filled hamburger with 26 ingredients. FCPS School Board member Ryan McElveen said the decision felt “a
little bit like a step backwards.”
A group called Real Food for Kids had fought hard to get a real hamburger on the menu at Fairfax County Public Schools. “We worked so hard, and we talk a lot about this burger and how we changed it,” JoAnne Hammermaster, co-founder and president of Real Food for Kids, told The Washington Post.
That got us wondering: How do Falls Church City Public Schools’ hamburgers stack up? You'll find nothing but all-beef burgers, plus a choice of a veggie burger.
When Food Service Director Richard Kane took over the management and preparation of food for students at Falls Church City Public Schools a few years back, he decided to make some changes. But not all at once.
“When I first got here, I wasn’t happy with the food, with the way it was being done,” he said this week in an interview with Falls Church Patch. “What we do now is we cook from scratch, about 90 percent of our food. That is unusual. Most school districts do not cook from scratch. And they don’t slant toward healthy.”
Kane knew that if he was going to make changes to the school menus, he couldn’t change it overnight, he said. “People are used to one thing...you have to gradually change it over time,” he said. “I’d start making things disappear, eventually they would notice, but it wasn’t as big a deal.”
He communicates with students, parents, teachers, administrators and the school board on the school menus, he says. “I encourage them to give me feedback. If they have any complaints, any positive comments…in the beginning I got a lot of e-mail. Now, I probably get one or two complaints a year. Usually it’s something easily fixable. I guarantee my food. If you’re not happy, I tell the students to bring it back or we’ll refund you your money.”
With a degree in hotel and restaurant management, Kane has worked as a chef, a food service director and running the food service department at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory before coming to Falls Church nearly seven years ago.
The Baltimore native is a self-confessed foodie whose favorite meal “used to be spaghetti and meatballs” but now he says he likes to “taste everything.”
“I go to different restaurants, we do field trips, to see what presentation looks like, I take pictures, see what the trends are," he said. "I became an advocate for child nutrition when I got into school food. It should be no different than food sold outside the school system.”
Kane and his crew served up 16,655 lunches last month in Falls Church City Public schools. But even with so many meals, quality wins out over quantity in his school kitchens and lunchrooms, with a little help from the students, too.
The national food service industry trade journals Viewpoint and Food Management Magazine have featured Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School's innovative "Husky Chef" (the school's mascot) student culinary arts competition. Modeled after the popular TV show "Iron Chef," the students in 7th grade Family and Consumer Science (FACS) are challenged by creating dishes that fit within the USDA school lunch guidelines.
The quarterly program, under the direction of Kane, FACS teacher Jeff Buck and Operations Manager Niki Wisemiller has also won a CYE Creative Excellence Award from the Virginia Department of Education. Winning dishes are served up on the school menu, Kane said.
Some of the most popular items on the school lunch menu? Build your own gourmet hot dog (it's a turkey hot dog) or build your own burger, using 100 percent beef patties or a veggie burger. Students have their choice of about a dozen toppings such as chopped onions, jalapenos, cheddar cheese, fresh pico de gallo and more.
One thing you'll never find on the FCCPS menu? "Chicken nuggets," says Kane.
So...about that 26-ingredient burger found in Fairfax County school lunchrooms. You won't find Kane dissing "the competition."
You'll find nothing but all-beef burgers, plus a choice of a veggie burgers, in the lunchrooms at Falls Church City Public Schools.
"Here in Falls Church, the superintendent, the school board and parents have supported me 100 percent," says Kane. "That makes a world of difference. I love my job."