School lunches: Thumbs up for Baton Rouge chef's menu

Feeding kids in Baton Rouge can be cheap and educational, preaches chef Lauren Guy. Fusing Louisiana flavor with nutritional verve, Career Academy's lunch menu is a welcome example of newly reformed meals getting positive student marks.

The Christian Science Monitor/Alfredo Sosa
School lunches that get back to simple and basic ingredients is what Chef Lauren advocates.

Chef's jackets are not the first thing you would expect to see in a school cafeteria. Especially not in a charter school with a 94 percent free or reduced lunch rate.

But chef Lauren Guy is not your average lunch lady. And this is not your average cafeteria. It's in the Career Academy, a Louisiana Resource Center for Educators-run charter high school in north Baton Rouge.

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"Our mission this year is to get vegetables in their purest form and fruits in their purest form, to show them you can do this on a budget," Guy said. "Because clearly we are."

That means taking pains to serve fresh produce at every meal, like fruit cups and orange wedges for breakfast and scoops of grapes with lunch. She's also kept the Louisiana flavor, but made it healthier.

"We started out the year with red beans, because we want to give them good Louisiana food and show them it could be made the healthy way," she said.

She also chooses a lot of foods the students may not get a chance to try at home, like Chinese barbecued pork.

"I want them to learn to eat real, adult food," Guy said.

The up to 200 students she serves a day seem to appreciate the efforts.

Katoria Augustus, 17, loved the seedless green grapes she was served recently with a turkey burger and baked fries.

"Keep your hands off my grapes," she said, as a tablemate reached for her tray. "I love the grapes, and the fries."

Kevin Augillard, 17, was a little more critical of the fries, complaining they were softer than those fried in hot oil. But he liked the burger meat and fixings.

"The meat's good and the bread's good, but it needs some more, like, seasoning," he said.

Augillard was tasting the chef's effort to cut down on a lot of the salt school lunch menus traditionally contain.

Nancy Roberts, executive director of the LRCE, said the lack of salt was one of the first complaints they heard, but that she hopes the meals, combined with education on what to eat and when, will overcome the complaints.

"She educates the kids on why we're doing this, which is really important," Roberts said. The school also has an allied health program, headed by a nurse, that backs up Guy's efforts in the kitchen.

And that kitchen's come a long way, too.

"It's been an uphill battle getting the kitchen ready to go," Guy said. When Guy first took over, the kitchen lacked a stove, which has since been remedied with a generous donation by Gene Todaro, owner of Marcello's Wine Cellar.

Unlike other schools, Career Academy serves its lunches on hard plastic trays, not disposable Styrofoam plates, and uses real cutlery.

"I think it shows we value (the food) more," Guy said as she hustled to help her staff of four get ready for a second shift of hungry students.

Guy, who holds a degree from the John Folse Culinary Institute at Nicholls State University, previously worked in restaurants before tackling school lunches.

In order to cook at Career Academy, Guy had to attend classes and become a School Food Authority, a federal certification that allows a school to cook on site.

"She's extremely bright and capable," Roberts said. "Very much a self-starter."

Guy's enthusiasm's spread to the students, who eagerly give her feedback at every meal. A few weeks ago, some students suggested green grapes instead of red. They were pleased by Guy's change to a recent Friday menu, which included a big scoop of green grapes.

After service for each shift is over, Guy walks the cafeteria, talking to each table about that day's menu.

"What a jewel," Roberts said. "We have a lot of positive mojo."

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