KINGMAN - When it comes to school lunches, Paula Loomis understands they're not always the most tasty or attractive plates on the table.
Loomis, who has spent 26 years in food service with the Kingman Unified School District and has been its director for five years, wanted to change that. So in December, she asked the district's governing board to allow her to hire a visiting chef for a month to spice up the students' school lunches.
Her request was approved, and local chef Luigi Garibaldi came to work this month at the district's central kitchen, located at 3174 Rutherford St. Since then, he has been planning menus and concocting meals that he hopes will appeal to students' senses of smell and taste. Garibaldi also is educating the staff about the art of seasoning food. This is the first time an outside chef has worked in the district's kitchen.
The district feeds 3,800 elementary and middle school students daily during the week, and about 600 students at Kingman High School and 200 at Lee Williams High School. All meals, which are cooked in the central kitchen and distributed to the district's schools, must follow the guidelines of the National School Lunch Program, which limits the number of calories, sodium and carbohydrates in lunches.
"Food services is a very important part of education," said Loomis. "If the kids don't eat, they won't learn. All they'll be thinking about during school are their empty stomachs. But it's very challenging to make school lunches appealing on the guidelines we're given. Chef Luigi has been working to improve the flavor and quality of our food, as well as make more from scratch instead of serving processed food. He's a professional chef and he's done a lot here already."
On Thursday morning, Garibaldi cooked a large pot of spaghetti sauce and meat as assistant cook Fran Simpson boiled whole grain spaghetti. Together, they made 500 pounds of sauce and meat, and 120 pounds of pasta for students' lunches, topping the meal off with small salads, garlic bread and pear cups. For a previous lunch, they baked 700 pounds of meatloaf. As a new item on the district's menu, Garibaldi added turkey meat and vegetables rolled up in whole-wheat tortillas.
Cooking for school lunches has been an eye-opening experience, said Garibaldi, a Kingman resident for five years after moving here from Anchorage, Alaska, where he lived for 11 years. There, he cooked for Orso, a high-end seafood restaurant, and ConocoPhillips Anchorage, an oil company that offered a restaurant for its employees. Garibaldi moved here when his wife, Ann Marie, got a job as a physician assistant for Fasttrack Urgent Care.
Once here, Garibaldi worked for two years as a kitchen supervisor at Hualapai Mountain Hospital until it closed, then got a job at Dora's Beale Street Deli for two years, helping her with dinners and catered events. He quit to start his own business, called Cooking With Luigi, where he will cook with clients at their houses or his own.
"Making school lunches is very different from what I've done in the past, and I've learned a lot so far," said Garibaldi. "Right now, I'm responsible for the most precious things in this city, which are the children. I have two kids of my own, so I know how hard it is to get them to eat well. It's a challenge to educate kids about eating right, because people eat out these days. My job here is to create something that tickles students' palates and tastes good."
Loomis said the new, chef-cooked lunches cut down on food waste, because students are more likely to eat what is on their plates now. Loomis couldn't provide a figure on how much food is wasted in the district annually, but noted much of it has been eliminated because students are only required to take three components of the school lunch, with one being a fruit or vegetable, and can skip the items that don't appeal to them.
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