Southwest Food Service Excellence CEO Monty Staggs remembers the days when school cafeteria workers would freshly prepare lunch for students.
But as school budgets grew thinner and lunches shifted from freshly cooked meals to processed meals that came out of boxes and placed on pans, he knew that he had to do something to preserve the healthiness and tastiness of the lunchtime cuisine he had fond memories of.
“If you think back 40 or 50 years ago, ladies and gentlemen cooked in our schools. That went away 20 or 30 years ago,” said Stags, who oversees the Scottsdale company’s efforts. “Everybody else buys frozen pre-processed foods, throws them on a sheet pan, heats it and calls that cooking. We do not subscribe to that.”
Although Staggs has been partnering with schools across the state to create fresh and healthy menu items, it is his company’s latest partnership that appears to be its most exciting.
Stags reached out to a pool of local renowned chefs to create healthy lunchtime cuisine.
The first two chefs to jump aboard were Chef Sasha Raj – who owned the popular Tempe juice bar and restaurant 24 Carrots – and the winner of Food Networks “Chopped”, Chef Corey Oppold.
“It was us reaching out to local chefs and partnering with them so that we can pull in more culinary expertise and bring in their expertise so that we can bring the great creative fare to our school districts and keep our kids where they want to come down and eat in the cafeterias,” Staggs said.
The chefs said it was easy for them to tackle the task as they had items already lined up to create.
Oppold brought a vegetarian toastie layered with black bean hummus and corn salsa and topped off with an avocado puree as his dish that he felt would be easy and inexpensive for schools to prepare.
“You’re trying to find in some kind of some way that the children can associate with,” Oppold said. “A tostada just came to mind and just make it into a healthier version. It was just fun, complex, with different textures and different flavors that children are pretty accustomed to.”
Raj decided to bring forth a vegan mac and cheese recipe inspired by her popular, beloved “mac and trees” recipe from her former 24 Carrots juice bar and restaurant where the “cheese” is made from a puree featuring butternut squash, potatoes, carrots, onions, cashews, and an assortment of flavorful spices.
“I found some of the success in furthering plant-based cuisine with both children and adults is to choose a recipe that looks familiar and is a dish that is easy to say yes to,” Raj said. “But what I appreciated about this dish is that it gives you the opportunity if you have say a picky eater to offer them a dish that has a lot of nutrition.”
Although Raj admits she has grown some thick skin over the years when it comes to critics of vegan eating, she believes that her cuisine breaks most misconceptions diners have it.
“It’s a very ‘carne asada world’ out there for a carrot to live in,” she said with a laugh. “Since I am a plant-based chef and as a plant-based chef forefront of my mind, rejection is as well.
“I am used to people saying things like oh plant-based food. I cannot eat that or you know, oh, I could never give up meat, I can never do those things.”
Although Raj enjoyed the opportunity to share her cuisine with youths across the state, she was most enthusiastic about the promise of being able to work alongside school chefs and possibly learn something.
“It’s an opportunity to learn from them and to it’s an opportunity to support them as well and kind of show our community that the chef community’s primary goal is nourishment,” Raj said, adding:
“I feel like every opportunity to step into a school, whether it’s volunteering at my nieces and my nephew’s school or getting to work with an organization such as this gives you a new perspective and that new perspective helps further and solidify is the dignity of food ”
However, there is a process for schools to collaborate with Southwest Food Service Excellence.
“The National School Lunch Program is administered by the USDA and so any school district that wants help in running their lunch program can put out a request for proposal and companies like us can put in a bid proposal for that,” Stags said.
“If we are selected, we come in and we take over we will either partner with them to bring on their cafeteria ladies and gentlemen to partner in that manner. We will write their menus; we will procure their food but we are sort of the one-stop-shop so that they can focus on teaching kids and we will take over all of the elements of nourishing their students.”
Stags and Raj are both eager to share the kitchen with chefs in cafeterias statewide.
“It is such an amazing opportunity to further the conversation around the quality of school lunch. we talk a lot about empowering our future and one of the most fundamental ways to do that is to feed children,” Raj said. “What I found in working with schools, the higher quality you’re able to offer, the more variety you’re able to offer.”
“We want to inspire kids to eat more nutritious and to drive those healthy eating behaviors,” Staggs added. “More importantly, we want to show them that you know, healthy and nutritious food doesn’t have to be yucky food.”