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Most schools have commercial grade kitchens. What would YOU do, or suggest, toward a solution to lunch programs/ obesity / food stamp hunger, using the school kitchen as an evening training ground?

Our neighborhood schools have some amazing kitchen facilities, that are totally underutilized, often reduced to reheating commissary meals shipped from a central kitchen. Lots of our kids eat both breakfast and lunch at school on a subsidized basis.

But yet within each school neighborhood, there are families feeding a supper of hot dogs/mac cheese etc, or going hungry until the kids repeat the cycle at school.

Let's imagine that the schools opened at night, where parents were able to attend, at which meetings a solid approach to cooking very basic but nutritious meals could be taught. This is the core of this post.

The first thing that comes to my mind is a night of simply showing how to cook dried beans, rice, and cabbage dishes. branching soon to other non-processed foods, There are cheap ways to eat.

What would you want your neighborhood school to do, or better yet underpinned by what would you offer to contribute to the process?

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  1. do most schools have amazing kitchen facilities? As I understand it, most (new) schools only have equipment to heat food up. In the city of new york, a school cafeteria cannot receive raw chicken breast--it has to come precooked, as most food does, either from a distributor or commissary. I know this is just a dream, but why dream? Start a cooking club, and use your own kitchen, a church kitchen, or even the firehouse! (now THERE's a kitchen) fayefood.com

    3 Replies
    1. re: fayehess

      I'd certainly think that NYC schools would snugly fit in the central commissary distribution mode. And good plug for your website. The question again: solutions, and contributions? You're question "Why dream"... well...

      1. re: FoodFuser

        But, FF, DO schools have real, even if not amazing, kitchens anymore? If they do, would their insurance allow it to be used by non-licensed people? What about the state sanitary police?!? I'm sure there's a real name for them but they DO exist. Just a little foundation please.

      2. re: fayehess

        Some NYC schools do have a "cooking kitchen." The school my mom works in does.

      3. I think that is a fantastic idea! However, I'm with the 2 previous posters in that schools don't have kitchens anymore ... and there would be major legal issues in doing such a thing.

        However, many churches do have adequate kitchens to hold a function like that.

        I feel like I have a skewed perspective on the whole thing though because I live in a community that is a destination for homeless people. There are people who travel across the country to be homeless in this city. At the same time our farmer's market is one of the most expensive I've ever seen or heard of and the city offers classes on how to cook on a small budget - but you have to pay $15/person and it the food it shows you is closer to the hot-dog-mac than to anything you'd consider healthful!

        Anyway, I'm constantly amazed that people lack VERY BASIC kitchen skills. As a matter of fact, the woman teaching one section of the above mentioned class tried to use a paring knife to peel a bulb of garlic instead of giving it a little bash and picking up the skin. She did the same thing with an onion instead of simply cutting it in 1/2 and peeling off the outer skin. I have a friend who couldn't even cook oats - she relied on the small packets of microwave oatmeal because she had no idea how to make oats! What I'm saying is, it would be a fabulous idea to round up a group of knowledgeable volunteers to teach basic cooking skills to people. One very important thing to remember in that sort of practice would be that not everyone gets to go home and rock a $30 santoku so it would be important to show how to get results from that steak knife that gets used for everything but steak or the ancient aluminum pot you picked up for $2 at Salvation Army. It's frustrating for people to assume that kitchens are just magically equipped instead of dealing with what's available to a more average person.

        I'm actually fairly inspired by this post and am now formulating some ideas to teach a free basic cooking skills class!

        8 Replies
        1. re: erisgrrrl

          The homeless travel across country to live in the streets of your city.
          The farmers' markets in your city are the most expensive in the country.
          The city sponsors - and charges for - cooking junk food classes for the homeless.
          But the cooking instructors themselves don't know basic techniques.
          Your city lacks the usually common thrift stores and WalMarts/Targets for cheap, good knives.

          Oh, c'mon. Give us a clue! Where are you? Chicago? I want to visit.

              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                I'll boost your post ,Sam, even though you've moved on to a higher plane. My town _is_(I know you loved this form of punctuation) a homeless destination: Our community offers incredible services to everyone who asks, therefore, they come. Various groups offer classes on how to cook well and cheaply. No one comes -- they prefer to eat at McDonalds. We have a serious problem here, and the homeless don't seem interested in being a part of healthy solutions. Our farmers markets accept food stamps, but none of the vendors I know have ever been approached.

                And, sadly, I have to add that all school cafeterias in our distrcit have had their functional kitchens removed. Now, they can only reheat.

                1. re: pikawicca

                  I may be missing something, but isn't there not a lot of point in teaching someone who's homeless to cook? I encountered a homeless person just the other day who had raw meat and no way to cook it. You might be able to build a (probably illegal) fire, but by definition you don't have a stove/oven/cooktop/hot plate to call your own ... many food bank clients, though, do.

                  1. re: foiegras

                    I'm wondering the same thing. Homeless people also have issues with food storage, so it may be more economical to buy something premade than to go out and buy ingredients to make the same thing. If you have to buy 6 servings, but have no way of refrigerating or preserving the extra servings, where's the savings?

                    1. re: foiegras

                      Social services in my town do a great job of moving homeless persons off the street and into subsidized housing. For the small number of chronically homeless, there are several "soup kitchens" where they can eat. The food served at these is actually quite good.

              2. It's a great idea. It's happening at my the high school in my inner-city neighbourhood. Most of these innovative things seem to need a champion - usually just one person with the passion to get it done....otherwise it just ends up quagmired in a committee.

                1. More funding.

                  Money makes the world go.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    That was my thought exactly. I just read an article about this issue, and the nutritionist at the school stated that, after labor, they had but a dollar per child. I'm surprised the lunches aren't worse, if that's the case.

                  2. What leads you to believe that folks would be responsive to your idea? I have a feeling most folks are quite satisfied with their meal choices. Not a good thing, but realistic.
                    Not exactly what you are proposing, but here is the cooking program in the public schools where I grew up.

                    1. I think the problem with this is that it assumes that there are a lot of people in inner city neighborhoods who have the time to attend these classes. Some work two or three jobs, and others are single parents who wouldn't be able to come to a class unless there was some sort of free childcare. I think part of the issue is also time.

                      People want something that is not only cheap, but quick to cook. If you get home fairly late and your children are hungry and whining, you don't necessarily want to be spending an hour prepping the food. You want something you can have ready to go in 15 minutes that can be cooked with fairly basic kitchen equipment.

                      1. I think you would want to make sure that your first class turned that rice, beans and cabbage into something tasty that people could take home to their families. I understand wanting to start with basic building blocks, but I think that's more of a CH perspective than a "I'm hungry, tired and broke and my kids want McD's".
                        As a side note, my least well-off friend, who recently visited a food bank for the first time, can cook very well and makes dinner every night. But she starts from cheap meat, not beans and rice. For various reasons, she would not easily be swayed from the idea that her family needs meat at dinner. Her take on the food bank was that they had everything her family needs, "except the meat", which she will keep buying herself. I think a good program would take into account people's cultural needs (ie/ halal meat) AND wants, rather than telling them what they should be eating (ie/ cabbage, not a favourite of many). There's nothing wrong with expanding people's horizons but maybe not at the first class...

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: julesrules

                          if your friend feels she 'needs' meat, that is all well and good as long as she buys it herself.
                          as a taxpayer, or as a contributer to a food bank, i have no interest in providing meat when beans and rice or soy products would adequately fill her family's protein needs.

                          my goal as a taxpayer and as a contributer is to provide healthful food, no more.

                          also, people who have a cultural need for halal meat or kosher meat should, imho, be personally financially responsible for such purchases.

                        2. FF, don't give up! As many posters have written, yes there can and will be hurdles with your idea. That doesn't mean it is impossible, it means you'll have to be diligent, flexible and fearless in pursuit.

                          Before anyone tells you "you can't do that" - and they will because "NO" is always an easier answer than "YES" - have your ultimate goal firmly in mind. Is it to teach basic nutrition? survival cooking skills? grocery shopping techniques? Second: who is your target audience? Is it low income families? the homeless? a combination of anyone needing assistance? the elderly poor?
                          NB: the single homeless population is a difficult group for this project because of the myriad reasons for their homelessness - alcohol/drugs and mental illness are main causes.

                          By defining and refining your goals, you'll have a better idea of what needs to be accomplished.

                          Disclaimer: I taught basic cooking and basic nutrition classes to a population served by a "safety net" private social service agency in the Phoenix area. I had a captive audience, eager to learn, and created a carrot-on-the-stick program. My audience was mainly families well below the poverty level. NB: if mom or dad couldn't attend every class, the teenaged children were encouraged to come in their place. We rewarded successful completion of our six week series with cookware and bags of staple groceries. Something as simple as taking the same money used to buy a Big Gulp and turning it into a nutritious dinner for four was an eye-opener for many.

                          To level the playing field, we held our classes in minimal kitchen facilities and used the worst possible cookware that I could scrounge, I cooked soup in coffee cans, because having a shiny, well-equipped professional kitchen immediately gave the excuse "well, my kitchen doesn't look like this so I can't do it". Everyone had access to coffee cans! We went to the local grocery store and shopped for the best bang for our buck - it became a contest and injected a light, playful aspect. Involving the participants in decision-making was crucial. It was often as simple as asking them what they'd like to learn.

                          After getting the initial program off the ground, moving over to the schools could be the next step. Getting the children involved is brilliant and an opportunity not to be missed. Think about doing this with the school-aged population as an after-school program. I think you'll be amazed at their interest. Alice Waters certainly has proven that kids are interested in eating well. Her "Edible Schoolyard" idea is now a successful national program. Good Luck with your dream. Let us know how you're doing.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: Sherri

                            I was at a planning meeting back in the fall for one of the school districts in the South Phoenix area....they're looking at building a central kitchen as part of a bigger project on some land they have. The project includes classrooms, a community garden, a tilapia pond, a small solar farm....the goal to work sustainability into the curriculum and in doing so bring better options into the food program as well. The project is to service the community as well including classes in the evening for families. One of the barriers actually is child care which the school district wasn't able to offer with their insurance program but they're looking at ways to do this.

                            They are dreaming very big and it was encouraging to see. If the entire project pans out as planned it will be quite impressive, particularly given the neighborhood it's in. The funding is there as the district isn't expanding as planned and the bond money needs to be used but that could raise a lot of issues with the community if not handled right.

                            I agree with Sherri - don't give up and don't be to push for change where you want to see it. Barriers exist but that doesn't mean they can't be overcome, particularly if you can people working together with a common vision.

                          2. FWIW, Jamie Oliver has a show starting tomorrow night on ABC about converting an elementary schools menu to more healthful options. From the preview I saw it is quite a challenge.

                            1. Such an amazing idea and discussion that follows it. I am curious, FF, are you planning to put this into action? Would love to see how it materializes.

                              I agree with queencru. If your target is to help put some vital skills to resourceful and nutritious dinner preparation for the groups that can benefit the most, by the time the people in these groups become adults and parents, their hands are tied with work, family responsibilities and other realities of life. Their food habits would have been hard(er) to budge too by then, just like what everyone else here mentioned. It will be nice to give this chance to people when they are still kids.

                              In my flight of fancy, I'd imagine this to be set up as an evening program that can be counted towards some school credit, as an extra incentive. The kids are encouraged to learn the cooking skills and take the result back home for dinner, or as their lunch the next day. Parents are encouraged to participate, if they could find time from their responsibilities. The young ones are the ones who have a greater capacity to accept new practices and use them to form into their own life habits. Hopefully they can also impart what they learn to their parents at home too.

                              As an example, I consider myself lucky to have had cooking classes as part of my school curriculum when I was young. I enjoyed them immensely and over the years I realized how much those skills have helped me, to be resourceful and efficient (value and time-wise) in way of preparing nourishment for myself and those around me. In times of good these skills allowed me to explore, entertain and evolve. In times of bad, such as when sick, they allowed me to sustain myself nutritionally in the most practical way, despite being limited in resources such as energy, so that I still didn't have to resort to, gasp, convenience foods.

                              I also realized eventually that not everyone around me have these "basic" skills. The skills to read a recipe and understand the basic terms and to execute them reasonably. I actually know a certain someone who cooks and yet takes more than an hour to cut up a few onions, and a lesson would fix that, hopefully when they are still young and malleable. I bet a lot of people are intimidated by terms such as dice, mince, julienne, sautee and fold. By skills I also mean meal-planning skills, the ability to look at what is available and envision a balanced meal, one that can be made within one's schedule.

                              I would love to see this happening. So is it true school kitchens are becoming more scarce?

                              1. Beans were my first thought ...

                                Just wanted to mention that the food bank in my county sponsors chef-taught classes for their clients so people can learn to cook, and they're very popular. An organization I used to belong to collected/bought/bagged dried herbs & spices for the classes, and the food bank kept calling for more ... I never got to go to any of the classes, but wanted to--they sounded great. The kind of thing I would be welcome to pay big bucks for at my local specialty grocer ;)

                                My understanding is that there are many homeless migration paths in the US ... I've seen it myself where I live. It puts everyone in a good mood too! Just as people might spend the summer and fall in the Midwest and then head to Florida for the winter, homeless people too take advantage of the weather in different parts of the country.

                                1. All the schools and social services places that I've built in the 2000's do NOT have a complete kitchen. They've had 're-heat' appliances aka the steamer that's as big as a walk in cooler.

                                  Older kitchens do indeed have a full on oven, stove top, deep fryer, etc., but not the newer ones.

                                  If this was offered, the tuff part would be getting people to go - so maybe a cook and eat meal, cuz' there's got to be an incentive to go 'back to school' to learn how to cook beans and rice.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: JerryMe

                                    & many of the older schools have torn out their kitchens and replaced with commissary food warmers, they have sold their appliances in order to not have them listed on insurance, etc. the only schools that consistently still have kitchens and scratch-cook are rural ones, not the ones in urban centers, where the knowledge is desperately needed.

                                  2. The obesity problem is going to get much worse before it gets better. It all has to do with how often kids eat and the lack of physical exercise.

                                    I have a friend who did his business school thesis on caterers using school cafeterias as a base of operations. In exchange they would cook the school lunch meals. it is feasible most places.

                                    If it isn't feasible everywhere, so be it. It should be implemented where it can. But I still don't think it will do anything for childhood obesity. Many schools are de-emphasizing phys ed, and kids are staying at home after school to surf the 'net while munching on a non-stop parade of snack food.

                                    1. In NC most of the schools have nice kitchens but my daughter, who works for a catering company in AZ says that most of the schools there get their kids lunches brought in because there are not kitchen facilities (her place of business packs & delivers breakfasts & lunches to schools).

                                      I think one problem with the poster's idea is that any place these activities took place would have to be able to insure whoever interested in partaking to avoid any liability. Most people on food stamps can't afford to pay for a class on how to stretch their food budgets. And most cities don't have it in their budget to be able to sponsor it.

                                      On another note, I think how people eat depends on their culture and what they were raised on. Most ethnic cultures, i.e. Indian, Mexican, Spanish as well as regional parts of the U.S. like the american south & southwest cook & eat a lot of things like rice & beans and vegetables. India is primarily a vegetarian country so they know how to cook & eat healthy and so do most Asians who use meat, for the most part, as a flavoring agent rather than a main part of a meal, concentrating on veggies, noodles, fish & rice.

                                      There are going to be some people who are just not going to change their eating/food buying habits even if you show them another way. It's almost like trying to get someone to eat a rare steak because it's how you think it should be eaten and they only want well done.

                                      1. In my hometown the city's Department of Recreation runs evening cooking classes in high school kitchens. They're usually more upscale- it might cost $100 for an evening class on how to prepare a complete Indian dinner or something. The classes are promoted in the same catalogue as swimming lessons and First Aid courses. However, surely the model could be used to provide free or cheap "basic skills" cooking classes. Having the city take responsibility for most of the program removes the liability from the schools' hands.

                                        2 Replies
                                        1. re: Jetgirly

                                          That's great that they can do that where you are...here, the city's dept of recreation does not do that kind of thing; they don't teach swimming or first aid. They do sponsor a place where elderly people can go to spend the day and they provide meals on wheels. To learn swimming and first aid and programs of that sort, you have to sign up at the community college or YMCA and it's not free or cheap.

                                          1. re: Jetgirly

                                            My city's P&R department has extensive, reasonably priced offerings for seniors. Once you pay for the rec card ($15), the senior classes that need to buy materials cost about $3-5 per class (including cooking). I think adding a similar basic cooking class available to people of all ages would be a great idea.