ST. LOUIS -- Starting in February, Saint Louis University's department of nutrition and dietetics is whipping up meals you would expect to see at a hip new restaurant for students and faculty at Marian Middle School, an urban all-girls, Catholic middle school.
The dishes are unexpected school lunch fare: chicken teriyaki, penne pasta with creamy cauliflower Alfredo, butternut squash and apple soup, three cheese pizza on whole wheat crust and French toast with berries and vanilla yogurt.
SLU's Food Innovation and Entrepreneurship Program agreed to provide snacks, breakfasts and lunches for Marian Middle School beginning in February. It builds upon an after-school program SLU offers at Marian, which teaches students how to grow their own fruits and vegetables, make healthy meals from local ingredients and add exercise into their lives.
Marian Middle School guides adolescent girls from diverse backgrounds who qualify for free or reduced lunches on an educational path to challenging high schools that prepare them for college.
"We're hoping to develop a local food environment for the students," said Steve Jenkins, a chef and director of the program, which is housed within SLU's department of nutrition and dietetics. "Students become familiar and more comfortable with local foods so they can move away from eating processed foods."
More than 70 percent of the ingredients in the meals will come from local farmers and producers, which makes them different from the typical school food service cuisine.
"Everything -- even breads and crackers -- are made in house and has to pass a taste test with students. Cooking for kids is so different," Jenkins says.
"We enhance comfort foods. For instance, we fold butternut squash puree into macaroni and cheese, which gives it a creaminess without the high fat content. What we serve is very nutritious. It's a chance for us to use all of the principles we teach in the department."
Students will preview recipes and ultimately help select what they are served. For instance, they recently tasted pumpkin recipes - about 85 percent liked the pumpkin soup, which will make the cut to be on the menu, while the pumpkin humus won't be offered.
The process has worked well at the other schools that contract for food service with SLU's nutrition and dietetics department, Jenkins said. Last year City Garden, a charter school sponsored by SLU, became the first school to serve SLU meals. SLU also prepares snacks for New City School, a private elementary school in the city.
"We make an effort to expose them to new things and we've heard from parents we're opening doors at home. Children are now requesting new foods. It's definitely beyond peanut butter and jelly."
While the food may taste gourmet, its price falls into the budget category. To meet guidelines from the National School Lunch program, meals can cost no more than $2.90.
Staying within the parameters of the National School Lunch program is good practice for the team of SLU nutrition and dietetics student workers who prepare school meals in the department's commercial kitchen in the Salus Center. They work under the supervision of nutrition and dietetic faculty and dietetic interns at SLU.
Whitney Linsenmeyer, who earned her bachelor's and master's degrees in nutrition and dietetics at SLU, is supervising the team, and sees the program as an excellent educational opportunity.
"One of my hopes is that by working with the school lunch program, our undergraduate students will take an interest in school food for their future careers," Linsenmeyer says.
"When they do become dietitians and enter the workforce, they should have extremely high standards based on what they have been exposed to in our program."
Long a leader in educating health professionals, Saint Louis University offered its first degree in an allied health profession in 1929. Today the Doisy College of Health Sciences offers degrees in physical therapy, athletic training education, clinical laboratory science, nutrition and dietetics, health informatics and information management, health sciences, medical imaging and radiation therapeutics, occupational science and occupational therapy, and physician assistant education. The college's unique curriculum prepares students to work with health professionals from all disciplines to ensure the best possible patient care.