More attention is being placed on the culinary skills of those in charge of preparing food at schools, as the childhood obesity rate increases and creates a demand for healthier food where school children receive a significant portion of their calories.

“It’s more work to cook from scratch, no doubt,” Dawn Cordova, a longtime school cafeteria worker attending Denver Public Schools’ first “scratch cooking” training this summer, told a national wire service.

Cordova and about 40 other Denver lunch ladies spent three weeks polishing their cooking skills while preparing food for school salad bars.  Denver is among countless school systems in at least 24 states working to revive proper cooking techniques in its food service staff.

The city’s 600 or so cafeteria employees will be wearing white chefs’ coats and hats, and all kitchen staff will be trained in basic knife skills within three years. Well-known area chefs visit for primers on food safety, chopping technique, and making healthy food more appetizing to young diners.

As public health officials warn that nearly a third of American children and teens are now considered obese or overweight, school cafeterias are the front line in an effort to reduce childhood obesity.  First Lady Michelle Obama started a “Chefs Move to Schools” program in June to highlight the need for better cooks in schools, and “boot camps” for lunch ladies are booming from California to New York.

Kate Adamick, a consultant from New York City who started “Cook For America” lunch lady camps several years ago, said the demand for her classes is so high her company has a hard time fulfilling requests for training. 

Being that lunch ladies often only have 20 minutes to cook the food, time is a big concern for the lunch ladies who must feed a balanced meal to the children in such little time.

At the Denver boot camp, lunch ladies were urged to steam or blanch their vegetables in smaller batches, even in the middle of a lunch period, so that cooked vegetables go “crate to kid” in 30 minutes or less, preventing soggy vegetables–which are not kid-friendly.

Experts say that food production at schools over the years has trended toward processed food so much that basic kitchen production equipment is lacking.  Produce sinks, oven hoods, or cold storage to keep meat and produce fresh are unavailable in some schools.

In Boulder County, Colo., cafeteria workers and parents raised $500,000 last year through grocery store donations and restaurant fundraisers to buy better kitchen equipment. The school system bought uniforms for the cafeteria workers and added training.

“Any school district that is trying to make significant change about what they serve kids, they have to look at the kitchens and the people working in those kitchens,” said Ann Cooper, director of Boulder County’s nutrition services.

By the end of training, lunch ladies in Denver were excited about cooking fresh, healthy food for kids.