A cross between a steamer and an oven, cafeteria managers say it can make those french fries crisp without all that waistline-expanding oil. Plus, its computerized brain can be programmed to cook almost anything, and it doesn't stink up and splatter grease all over the kitchen. The only problem? One oven will cost a school about $18,000. And most schools actually need two to cook for hundreds of children.
But a foundation created by a retired physician has stepped in to help.
Dr. John Bower spent his career caring for Mississippians with kidney disease, setting up a nonprofit chain of dialysis centers. Using money from the sale of those centers, his Bower Foundation is now attacking one of the root causes of kidney disease — obesity.
The foundation recently announced $900,000 in grants for schools to buy combi-ovens, with school districts required to put up half the cash. That should be enough to buy 100 ovens, equipping 50 schools. The foundation has already funded purchases at 84 schools.
"We ask the schools to remove their fryers when they put these products in," executive director Anne Travis said. "It's been a great way to improve the nutritional content of the food."
Federal money has paid for ovens at 59 other schools. But many districts, once they've gotten some outside money to introduce them to the appliance, have become believers and started paying for them on their own.
"We are ready not to wait on grants," said Cynthia Coleman, child nutrition director in DeSoto County, Mississippi's largest public school district.
Today, 11 DeSoto schools have combi-ovens. Coleman said that her goal is to install ovens and replace fryers in one school cluster each year. Besides the expense of buying the ovens, Coleman said more than $5,000 in electrical and plumbing work is usually required for installation. Because the oven is a steamer, it needs a water line connection.
For the foundation, the main benefit is a reduction in fat and calories. A half-cup serving of traditional fries has 88 calories and 4.6 grams of fat, while a half-cup of baked fries has 73 calories and 2.1 grams of fat. Over one school year, a large high school switching to baked fries could take 5.4 million calories out of the cumulative diet of students, with 900,000 fewer grams of fat served.
Cafeteria chiefs say eaters don't miss fried food, or in some cases even prefer the food cooked in the new ovens. Coleman said the number of meals purchased stayed steady in schools with combi-ovens.
"They honestly couldn't tell the difference," said Becke Bounds, a former nutrition director in Lamar County who now works for the state Department of Education.
There are some side benefits beyond healthier cooking. Removing fryers means kitchens and cooks don't reek of grease. Plus, the ovens are self-cleaning.
"All that grease is not on the appliance, it's not on the floor," Bounds said.
The ovens have computerized controls that can be programmed to cook a particular dish by touching a button, said Curtis Shelton, who has sold more than 400 Alto-Shaam ovens in the state.
Ease of use and ease of cleanup has made combi-ovens an employee favorite.
"It has become the main piece of equipment in our kitchens," Coleman said.
Mississippi has been trying to slim down its students since lawmakers passed the Healthy Students Act in 2007. And the fight has shown some progress. The share of overweight and obese children in kindergarten through fifth grade fell from 43.6 percent in 2007 to 37.3 percent in 2011. But there hasn't been much progress among black children. A study published last month by University of Mississippi researchers found that in 11 schools across two counties in the state's Delta region, 47 percent of students in grades 1 to 5 were obese. That study warned that a measurable decline in weight "may not be evident for years."
Travis said schools appear to be leading the way in trying to improve diets, while students may not be eating any healthier at home.
"The main place where we're seeing improved nutrition is in the school environment," Travis said.
There are still a lot of french fries and chicken nuggets being served, though, despite the state efforts and new U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines. Coleman said that kid favorites are needed to make sure students eat.
"I'm keeping the things they like on the menu but finding different ways to prepare it," she said. "It doesn't matter if you have the healthiest menu. If they're not going to eat it, you're not doing your job."
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