Tulsa Union Public Schools Upgrades Lunch Menu With Local Chef's Help

Tuesday, February 25th 2014, 10:54 am
By: News On 6

To quote Chef Emeril Legasse, more and more school districts are "kicking it up a notch" when it comes to their cafeteria programs. One example is Tulsa Union Public Schools.

In the last four and a half years, Union's food budget has doubled- from a little over $4 million, to over $8 million. A portion of that money has been dedicated to improving the quality of the cooking.

The reign of the lunch ladies is coming to an end in Union Public Schools. After decades of school cafeteria supremacy, they're often being replaced by chefs.

Michael Fusco has owned and operated his Eponymous restaurant on Riverside, in addition to cooking at Wolfgang Puck and Flavors.

Fusco was hired last summer by Union's director of child nutrition, to accomplish one simple, yet difficult goal.

"I wanted the kids to have healthy food but I knew, generally, if the food doesn't taste good, they're not going to eat it, so, we have to really make it taste good, and look good and smell good," said Lisa Griffin, Union Public Schools nutritionist.

With constantly changing federal guidelines, this is easier said than done.

"Well, less sodium, I gotta admit, it's an adjustment for me for sure," said Michael Fusco.

There are also federal mandates for more whole grains and less fat and less sugar. Union High School offers nine different dining options, including a cyber cafe and a juice bar.

"There's a big selection of food, it's good food and you get a lot for your money," said Reed Alldy, senior at Union.

 For students who can afford it, Union charges just $2.50 for lunch.

Each day, the district serves over 9,300 lunches and more than 6,000 of those are free to eligible students.

"Even in this situation, its customer driven and the customer is the student who goes to this school. The greatest thing about them, if they don't like something they tell you right away," said Michael Fusco.

When asked, students would like Chef Fusco to add to the menu.

"Well Chef, I think that you should add some more, I don't know, some different kinds of fries, you need some curly fries and then some beer-battered fries because I really like beer-battered fries," said Reed Alldy.

The beer-battered fries might be a no-go, but the chef is listening.

"I can go and interact with the kids and I have great feedback from them all the time," said Michael Fusco.

Gone are the ten-hour days, six-days a week, now Michael Fusco is part chef and part instructor.

"He loves working with our people and they really like him. He is also able to share his skills really well, so they pick it up and run with this, so it's been a very, very good partnership," said Lisa Griffin.

Is Michael Fusco happy?

"Happy chef, very happy. I've never worked for a better organization or better people," said Michael Fusco.

One major change is called "batch cooking," preparing meals at say 10:30 or 11 a.m. instead of 7 a.m., to make sure everything is at its peak when the kids show up to eat.