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Our Nation’s Trusted Resource for Scratch Cooking In Schools

The Lunch Box, free access for all

Chef Ann Cooper has always been ahead of her time. After working in school districts for several years, she realized that schools nationwide needed to have access to the same tools and resources. And so she created The Lunchbox, the most comprehensive scratch cooking database, available for free to every school food professional in the US.

How it began

Starting in the early 2000s, Chef Ann Cooper and her school food colleagues began sharing their experiences and knowledge about how to transform school lunch from processed, heat-and-serve meals to healthy, tasty meals. In 2008, she envisioned an actual Lunch Box (a physical tool box) filled with hard copy resources for schools to implement a scratch cook model. She soon saw opportunity in technology and the internet, and started to outline her vision in a digital platform - The Lunch Box (TLB) website. Since the launch of this website in 2010, it has undergone significant revisions to support user needs and content updates. The latest came just months ago when TLB relaunched in August 2020; read about some of the new additions here.

Tools to drive change

When first creating TLB, Chef Ann was insistent that the recipe section provide districts with the ability to scale the recipes based on a program’s average daily participation (ADP.) She was frustrated that all of the recipes for school food professionals were in PDF format and did not have capabilities to expand to the district’s servings.

Chef Ann also determined that a lack of fiscal knowledge and modeling ability were holding school food leaders back from operating a cook-from-scratch program. Managing labor in a cook-from-scratch kitchen can be an entirely different ball game; many districts struggle to keep their labor percentages at 50% or less of their budget. It is important to keep labor in line; every inefficient labor dollar used is a dollar that could be used to increase food quality.

One of the most popular sections of TLB is the Labor Cost section in Fiscal Management. Tools like the Meals Per Labor Hour Worksheet (MPLH) are useful to balance staffing between sites. This tool also provides an indicator of a site’s ability to take on new programs and increased student participation without adding labor costs. The Position Control Worksheet is a cost controlling tool; this worksheet should be a living document that reflects the current plan to produce quality meals and service for students. We’ve also created a Food Cost Projection Worksheet to help safeguard food service funds when undergoing complex program change. This tool can be applied to a budget anytime, even without going through major change, creating a realistic measurement for a director to compare actual food cost against budgeted food cost as the year progresses.

New resources for schools

Ann makes sure that we are constantly looking at how school food is changing and pushes us to work with our partners to create new content and resources as schools need them. The current pandemic has challenged school food teams to scratch cook and simply keep their program operating. The CAF team has created an Emergency Feeding section on our website, including content on food resources, food access, and marketing for school districts. One resource that has proven very helpful for school districts is Chef Brandy’s recommendations for Scratch Cooking To-Go. Because of virtual learning, so many districts have moved to remote feeding programs, needing to pre-pack meals for take home.

We are always working on new tools and resources that will support scratch cooking in school districts. Currently, our team is creating a Self Assessment tool where districts can enter their unique operational information and TLB will deliver extensive feedback. This will include customized recommendations, a structured report, and an overall scratch cooking score that will provide a baseline to grow from. We anticipate the tool to launch in March 2020.

It Takes a Village

We are grateful to have partners that understand the impact of TLB on school food and help us honor Ann’s vision to ensure these tools and resources are free to all school districts.

Helping school districts look at their program through a 360 lens allows them to ensure all components of their program are operating at full cylinder. The Lunch Box (and our other leadership development tools) help food service professionals consider Food, Finance, Facilities, Human Resources and Marketing as they develop their plans.

There have been so many partners over the years that have made TLB possible and we are grateful for their commitment to healthier school food: Colorado Health Foundation, Life Time Foundation, Newman’s Own Foundation, Whole Kids Foundation, and our current partner the Rachael Ray Foundation. Without these partners, TLB resources would not be available for school districts nationwide.


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