CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Last August, all 261 Kanawha County school cooks were abruptly ordered to quit serving prepackaged food and cook instead, from scratch, with fresh ingredients, five days a week.
They were given little warning, and no extra training.
By October, protesting school cooks packed Kanawha school board meetings. They made headlines for weeks. At some schools, students quit eating school meals in droves.
Six months later, the Kanawha County schools superintendent says the county should have trained the cooks first. The school board president blames the cooks, and the interim food service director says some cooks sabotaged the food.
"In retrospect, we were a bit too aggressive," Superintendent Ron Duerring said in March. "We were trying to follow the state's push for healthier meals, but I think maybe we should have tackled it a little more slowly and done a little more training with our cooks on cooking from scratch."
With fewer students eating, Kanawha County's food program is projected to make about $350,000 less than it did the previous year, according to the state Department of Education.
With fixed labor costs, the county must make up part of that shortfall. During the fracas, the county also lost $96,000 in federal revenue because it neglected to send in applications for free and reduced-cost meals in a timely fashion, state records show.
School board President Pete Thaw still blames the cooks. "All that hell-raising at the beginning of the year was caused by the cooks, in my opinion," he told the Gazette in March. "Some of them are lazy, and they didn't want to change the way they were doing things. They'd much rather just unload the truck of processed food, take it out of the freezer, put it in the microwave and serve it."
Cooks reacted in different ways, said Tammy Walker, interim child nutrition director. "We have a lot of wonderful veteran cooks who said, 'OK, I can do this.'"
But Thaw is right about others, she said. "We also had some who realized scratch cooking was more work, and they didn't want to do it, so when they prepared a lot of items, they left ingredients and steps out so it wouldn't taste good.
"At one school, for instance, they served a pizza that's supposed to be finely sliced, sautéed vegetables with melted cheese. Instead, they piled chunks of raw vegetables and cheese on it, about three or four inches high, and called it scratch cooking. Well, no wonder the kids didn't like it. At another school, they left the sugar out of the brownies."
"I don't believe that for one second," said Jackie Long, president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. "These cooks love the students, and they wouldn't do that."
The number of Kanawha students eating school meals is gradually rising, but is not yet back to last year's level. "I'm hopeful that we can make up the [$350,000] over time," Duerring said. "We are backing up and trying again."
The county is hiring a new food service director. "The ideal candidate will be committed to change," the advertisement said.
What can be learned?
To put the Kanawha episode in perspective, it makes sense to go back to 2009, when British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver landed in Huntington with his TV reality show, vowing to whip Cabell County into healthier, skinnier shape.
He set up camp for three months at Central City Elementary School, where he attacked breakfast pizza, processed meat full of chemicals, and high-sugar flavored milk.
One in three West Virginians is already obese, Oliver told his international audience. Obesity leads to diabetes, heart disease, strokes. "If you want to make a difference, start with what the kids are eating," he said.
He did not mention that the Cabell high schools already had salad bars. Soda pop and junk food sales were banned from schools. Cooks were baking with whole-grain flour - but they also used a lot of prepackaged, processed food.
Food service director Rhonda McCoy had a long-term plan to get rid of processed food, she said. "You can't change the menu all at once and expect kids and parents won't revolt."
Oliver stirred up awareness and aggravation and won over Central's hostile cooks. "That meant we could move faster at that school," McCoy said. Central started cooking from scratch five days a week. But Oliver was leaving, and there were 23 other schools.
Enter Kanawha County
Cabell Huntington Hospital stepped in and paid Oliver's behind-the-scenes crew -- three chefs from Connecticut-based Sustainable Food Systems -- $100,000 to stay for the rest of the year. In six months, they trained the cooks at all Cabell County schools. "People called us the reality behind the reality show," head chef John Turenne said.
They spent a week at each school. "We'd walk in the back door of the kitchen on Monday morning, at 4:30 a.m. and face these looks of fear in the cooks' eyes," Turenne said. "But by Friday, we were getting hugs, kisses, school T-shirts, e-mail addresses."
Today, Cabell County schools cook from scratch five days a week with mostly fresh ingredients. Their food gets rave reviews from visiting journalists.
New York freelance writer Jane Black, a food critic who is co-writing a book about the Oliver episode, recently blogged that "Cabell County's efforts prove that, with real cooks in the kitchen, good food can be produced on a shoestring."
In late spring 2010, "April Hamilton and some Kanawha County colleagues showed up in Huntington and asked if we would come over to Kanawha County and see how we could help out," Turenne said.