Mt. Lebanon School District

Delicious and Nutritious. School lunches get
a health upgrade. 

School lunch comes with its own set of challenges for both students and their parents. Kids want variety and food that tastes good. Parents -- and the U.S. government -- want children to eat a nutritious lunch, even when it’s not homemade. Understanding that school cafeterias must meet the needs of both, Chef Michael Kelly from Pennsylvania’s Mt. Lebanon School District, has stepped up to the challenge to offer meals that kids want to eat, while also meeting set nutritional guidelines. Long gone are the days of mystery meat and mushy veggies.

Since coming on board last year, Kelly has helped the school district serve nutritious and delicious food their students love by creating innovative menus, using fresh ingredients, and serving a wide variety of dishes. His is a school lunch no student is willing to trade.

Kelly, whose experience draws from being a sous chef at West Virginia University and with the Pittsburgh Steelers, oversees the production of high-quality meals for students at 10 different schools in the district. From the main production kitchen, Kelly and his staff plan and produce meals for more than 700 high schoolers and deliver food to students at the seven elementary schools as part of their satellite operation. He also plans menus for the smaller production kitchens at the two middle schools.

At the high school where the main production kitchen is located, options include made-to-order sandwiches, made-from-scratch pizza, plus burgers and chicken sandwiches hot off the grill. Freshly made entrees for the hungry high-schoolers rotate between Asian-concept noodle bowls and lettuce wraps, an Italian-themed pasta bar with homemade sauces, and a colorful burrito bar much like trendy quick-service Mexican restaurant chains. Topping off the students’ main cuisine is an unlimited fruit and veggie station, which helps the lunch program meet USDA nutrition standard guidelines and parents’ expectations. 

“I love the challenge of creating fresh and healthy foods that students will end up loving,” said Kelly. “We created these different food stations, much like a college cafeteria, to give them variety and inspire good eating habits.”

This past spring, the school district built a new central kitchen in the high school to make serving areas and food stations more efficient and the dining area much larger. Since the renovation, they now feed 30 percent of their student population. Students also have the option to bring their own lunch or to walk home to eat, as Mt. Lebanon is a walking school district.

“When we came into this new space we got all new equipment, but the one piece of equipment we wanted to keep was the Alto-Shaam Combitherm® oven because of its ability to do so many things,” said Kelly. “It’s my favorite piece of equipment.”

With the new production kitchen and the help of the Alto-Shaam Combitherm, Kelly and his staff can produce high volumes of food faster.  The combi oven, which the school district has owned for 3 years, is capable of convection, steaming, combi cooking and baking. This means shorter preheating and cooking times overall, which enables the staff to serve the high schoolers and get meals to the elementary schools efficiently.

Producing lots of food quickly is one thing – ensuring that food is cooked just right is another. Chef Kelly ensures food is consistent and flavorful by infusing moisture, which is just as important to him as using and creating fresh foods. The Alto-Shaam Combitherm oven combines a steam and convection oven into one versatile unit that serves a number of cooking functions.

“Using steam injection creates a moist, flavorful and very colorful product that presents so well,” said Kelly. “The Alto-Shaam Combitherm oven allows me to control humidity and temperature separately, which gives me a great range to create different foods. I use this one oven to brine vegetables, sear chicken breast, steam rice, roast beef and bake hoagie rolls.”

With all of this capability and versatility, Kelly helped the school district find the key to satisfying student appetites. He and the school district revolutionized school lunch by meeting the USDA guidelines of the National School Lunch Program, putting a healthy edge on culinary trends, and creating high-quality meals that their students love.

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