Cafeteria food doesn't have the best reputation in the culinary world, but parents and students at a pair of area schools recently had a chance to peek behind the lunch counter.
On Sept. 27, Student Nutrition Services — a department of the Hillsborough County School District — hosted kitchen tours between 5 and 7:30 p.m. at the cafeteria shared by Barrington Middle and Stowers Elementary schools in Lithia.
"I was really surprised at how much thought goes into the meals and all the preparation," said Todd Filipek, who attended the event with his two children, seventh-grader Nicholas and fifth-grader Jennifer. "I'm happy to hear they're working healthy food into the menu that kids will like."
The tours lasted about 20 minutes and took each group through a series of stations manned by SNS employees, who described how each facet of the school's food service program works.
"We want to show them that the food we serve comes from the same products they buy at their grocery store," said Cindy Burnside, student nutrition specialist for Area 6, which encompasses schools in Lithia, Valrico, Dover and Plant City. "People think of lunch food as something that is issued by the government."
According to SNS General Manager Mary Kate Harrison, Hillsborough operates the sixth largest feeding program in the country, serving more than 210,000 daily. Harrison said SNS is a self-supporting enterprise with a $121 million budget.
"We don't take money from the district's general fund," Harrison said. "It's a balancing act because we want kids to eat our food and be healthy, but if we go too healthy we're going to be feeding the trash cans."
Visitors sampled some items on the menu, including sweet and sour chicken as well as yogurt parfait with fresh fruit and homemade granola. Ben Guggenmos, district chef, demonstrated examples of healthy and desirable school lunch options, including brownies made from flour that is 60 percent whole grain.
"The great thing about kids is that they're brutally honest," said Guggenmos, who was hired during the 2010-11 school year to raise the culinary skill level of Hillsborough lunch workers. "They will tell you if they think the food is bad."