Chef’s Tasting Feeds a New Perception of School Lunches

Students, parents shuffle through the chef's tasting line at de Zavala Middle School.

One by one, students and parents shuffled through a buffet line at de Zavala Middle School, their plates filled with fettuccini alfredo, shepherd’s pie and a brothy Asian rice dish. “Parents were saying, ‘This is cafeteria food?’” says Bennett Loy. “You always want to please your customer, so to get that positive feedback was neat.”

As the Chartwells Executive Chef for Amarillo ISD, Bennett is responsible for managing the menus behind the 7.5 million meals served on AISD campuses each year. That response from parent taste-testers was exactly what Bennett was hoping for when he hosted a chef’s tasting, recently, at de Zavala Middle School.

“We chose de Zavala because we always want to increase participation with regards to students coming through the line. A lot of de Zavala students bring their lunch or have lunch brought to them,” says Bennett. “There’s a perceived notion about cafeteria food and we constantly battle that. So we thought why not showcase some of the dishes we do and invite students and parents.”

School cafeteria food sometimes still conjures thoughts of gross grub from years gone by, but Bennett will tell anyone the meals served in his cafeterias are not your parents’ school lunches. With some dynamic software at his fingertips, Bennett can bring a world of recipes and menus to AISD cafeterias. “We listen to our customer and we want to provide dishes that are relevant to current tastes and trends,” he says.

It’s not unusual to see global cuisine from pork carnitas to chicken and sausage jambalaya, to Asian fare at lunch, or an egg frittata on the breakfast menu. A recent lunch menu, for example, included a dish called Satsuma Cobb Salad, or, as the description in AISD’s School Lunch by Nutrislice app reads:

“Satsuma is a small seedless citrus fruit, A.K.A. a cold, hardy, mandarin orange. This Cobb salad includes segments of mandarins, julienned turkey, ham, chopped egg, diced tomatoes and cucumbers, all layered atop crisp salad mix, and splashed with a honey mustard dressing that was kissed with orange juice.”  

But it isn’t just exotic fruits that have Bennett so passionate about food; it’s the fruits of his labor. “You can’t learn unless you get the proper nutrients,” he says. “If they aren’t eating, I’m not doing my job.” With this philosophy in mind, Bennett and his staff supply AISD scholars with needed nutrients to become thinkers, communicators, collaborators and contributors.

Bennett comes by this philosophy organically, inspired by his own experiences in the kitchen. “That’s the best part of the house,” he says. “That’s family right there. I always hung out in the kitchen because that’s where you got to eat and my mom was a fantastic cook.”

Those ingredients, says Bennett, are often missing from today’s tables. “Kids sometimes think food is what you get in a bag at a drive-thru,” he laments. “But, there’s science, love and compassion. Food connects all of us and we’ve kind of lost that. We’d like to get our young people reacquainted with that.”

With 35,000 customers a day, Bennett and his team of 300-plus staff members around the district understand the weight of their work. “We take it very seriously,” he says. “We want you to eat while you are here. You need to.”


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