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Lunch is Served

Lunch is Served

The school-lunch depictions you’ve seen on television—highly-processed food, bullying, rigid lunchroom social hierarchies—don’t exist at University School of Milwaukee. For decades, USM has taken a unique and intentional approach to dining. Students are assigned to tables, where they are joined by an adult and students from other grades, and they can choose from a variety of healthy, delicious meal options. USM’s lunches are deliberately designed to support our mission of cultivating excellence in learning, leadership, and citizenship.

For students from ages 3 to 18, lunch at USM is a time to broaden palates, make new friends, become part of a community with shared values, speak with adults, and self-advocate. But to them, it just feels like lunch.

Join us as we follow a plate of spaghetti from idea to reality—and learn how it fills more than just stomachs.

The HandCut Foods team has a morning meeting before preparing food for USM students and employees.

5:55 a.m.

It’s dark outside as members of the HandCut Foods team gather in the Preschool, Lower School, and Middle School dining room for their daily morning meeting. “Okay team this will be a heavy week,” announces Oscar Vega Medina (pictured above, center), executive chef, who leads the meeting. In addition to preparing lunch for today’s 680 students, the team has to prepare charcuterie boards and desserts for an upcoming evening school function with an estimated 250 guests. They are also scheduled to make 40 boxed lunches consisting of sandwiches, a prepared salad, chips, and freshly baked cookies, for an upcoming Middle School field trip. If all goes to plan, the food—fresh and delicious and prepared by hand—will appear as if by magic to fill hungry bellies.

Building Community One Plate at a Time

At USM, the dining room is a learning space in much the same way as the classroom. In the Preschool and Lower School, it starts with the students walking quietly and respectfully down the hall, and waiting patiently to be served by the HandCut Foods staff. When they’re seated, students might be assigned to a table with a teacher they’ve never had before, or peers they don’t yet know very well. “They’re making connections with others in our community, and that’s such an important part of what we do here at USM,” said Jennifer Keppler, Preschool coordinator.

For Middle School and Upper School students, having a dedicated spot at lunch fosters belonging and reduces the “clique” mentality. “Lunch is the great equalizer in that sense,” said Elaine Griffin, head of Middle School. “Students aren’t being separated out by their interests, they’re all comingling together and the conversations are not necessarily set by the adult at the table. The kids set the agenda.”

6:28 a.m.

The kitchen is filled with sounds—the rhythmic chopping of knives against cutting boards, the clanging and clattering of metal pots and pans, the monotonous hum of exhaust fans, and laughter peppered with cautionary shouts of “behind” or “hot pan.” It’s also bursting with smells. As Jesus Zepeda sautés chopped carrots, onions, and celery in olive oil, the savory aroma fills the air. Zepeda prepares a large batch of chicken noodle soup every day due to its popularity with students, but he also makes a second pot of soup that rotates for variety. Today’s second soup is curry and lentil.

A collage of chefs washing and chopping fresh produce.

7:14 a.m.

While his soups simmer, Jesus Zepeda stirs the freshly prepared spaghetti sauce made with tomatoes, salt, pepper, garlic, and oregano. Spaghetti is a popular meal at USM, but the menu constantly evolves based on student feedback. Sometimes the feedback is verbal, either directly from the students or their parents, other times it’s visual—the amount of food that winds up in the trash is a good indicator of whether the students liked it. Depending on the response, the HandCut Foods team will tweak the recipe or scrap it altogether.

Limiting Food Waste

The HandCut Foods team has incorporated important changes designed to limit food waste, including using portion control tools to ensure consistent serving sizes, and encouraging students to first clear their plate before returning for seconds. They no longer pre-plate food for children but instead build a child’s plate based on what he or she requests to eat, which results in less food being thrown away. Even small changes, like composting fruit and vegetable peelings and ordering smaller apples that young children are able to finish in one sitting, make a big difference.

Chefs laugh while chopping romaine lettuce for the salad bar.

8:06 a.m.

The sun is up, and a cool breeze wafts in through an open window. While parents finish the morning drop-off, Carmen Ramirez, Brianna Kimbel, and Carmen Guerrero stand on anti-fatigue mats trimming, chopping, and slicing fruit and vegetables for today’s salad bar. This is where they are stationed for the majority of their eight-hour shift. Meanwhile, Ruth Cusak and Tyrone McMurtry (pictured at left) prepare lettuce for salads. In an average week, the students and adults in this dining room will eat 100 pounds of cucumbers, 120 cantaloupes, 48 honeydew melons, 36 pints of cherry tomatoes, 24 pineapples, and 10 watermelons—all of which are washed, trimmed, and sliced by hand.

8:38 a.m.

The spaghetti is finished, and it’s time for baking. Ruth Cusack transfers large portions into deep pans and sprinkles them generously with parmesan and mozzarella cheeses and oregano. Before baking, she covers each pan first with parchment paper, then tin foil. “The parchment paper is so that the cheese doesn’t stick to the tin foil and burn,” she explains. It also ensures that the tin foil doesn’t negatively react to the tomatoes in the sauce.

A collage of chefs preparing baked spaghetti and desserts.

USM Dining: Upgraded

As USM embarks on the second year of its strategic plan, it’s clear that dining is integral to

developing learners, leaders, and citizens. For Upper School students, dining got a major overhaul in 2018 with the addition of the Palermo Servery and the Jack Olson ’67 Commons. The existing Preschool/Lower School/Middle School dining room, however, is crowded and the kitchen staff is limited by old equipment.

In advance of a new fundraising campaign, school leaders are soliciting funds to support, renovate, and expand the existing space, and to build a separate, 1,500-square-foot Preschool-kindergarten dining hall. The new space will reduce congestion in the Lower School and Middle School dining hall and allow for smaller groups of eight Preschool and kindergarten students per adult at each table. This means that students will spend more time exploring new food options, engaging in conversations with each other and the adults at their table, and growing their leadership skills by serving their peers.

A rendering of what the updated dining room may look like.

Renovating the existing Lower School and Middle School dining room will reduce the number of lunches from four to three, without compromising the overall length of the lunch periods. An updated kitchen will mean more efficient prep spaces and larger refrigerated storage options, giving students more expanded food offerings and a greater variety of entrees to taste and explore. Reconfigurations to the space, including the addition of two new wings, will provide more flexible seating for larger community gatherings.

For more information on the new dining hall projects, please contact Patrick Tevlin, chief advancement officer, at or 414.540.3330.

9:02 a.m.

Mary Kline is busy preparing today’s dessert—doughnut holes—by hand. She sets identical balls of dough on a tray using an ice cream scoop before covering them with cinnamon and sugar. “Most people kind of eyeball stuff, but I like to be precise,” she says. “You have to if you’re going to be consistent.” Kline even brings a tackle box with her to work, filled with her preferred tools. Her desserts are a hit with the students. “I love the variety of food options,” said Amare Howard ’30. “They even have desserts here. Every week. I mean, we got those like once a year at my old school.”

A chef fills out an allergy checklist so that students know what foods are safe for them to eat.

9:36 a.m.

In the dining room, Bill Ramos is filling out the daily allergen checklist, a large board that lists the ingredients of each of the day’s dishes. Ramos is the school’s resident allergy expert, a position he takes extremely seriously. USM is a nut-free campus but there are many children with other types of food allergies, some severe, and Ramos helps younger students select food that’s safe for them to eat. For the students with the most severe allergies, he personally prepares their meals. This involves a complicated choreography to ensure there is no cross-contamination of any equipment or ingredient he uses. “Making sure that nothing goes awry with this food is the hardest and most important part of my day,” he says. “I would feel unbelievably horrible if anything bad were to happen on my watch.”

10:35 a.m.

As the team wraps up their lunch break, stress and anticipation for the day’s lunch service begins to build. Th e minutes tick down as team members rush to finish filling the salad bar, set up the three serving stations, load refrigerators with extras for the salad bar, get plates ready for the prekindergarten and junior kindergarten tables, and store hot food in the warming boxes. Ramos makes final checks with the chefs on all of the day’s ingredients.

A freshly restocked salad bar awaits the next group of students.

Broadening Palates

"I like to say that I can sell food like nobody's business," said Jennifer Keppler, Preschool coordinator, who makes a concerted effort to encourage kids to try the food being served. "Seeing your peers eating the same things as you, and maybe even trying something new, is a really big part of being at school."

A salad bar featuring a wide range of vegetables, grilled chicken, hard boiled eggs, and various cheeses.

Those lessons apply to students of all ages. "I enjoy the wide variety of options, and how there are different entrees every single day," said Aidan Wang' 24. At school, he is exposed to meals and ingredients he doesn't typically eat at home, and he is encouraged to try them when he sees his friends enjoying them. "I've definitely tried things here that I might not have otherwise," he said. "I never knew I was someone who liked quesadillas."

HandCut Foods staff members actively work to incorporate new flavors and make subtle tweaks, like swapping white rice for brown rice, which is more nutritious. They also work to give students more options while still retaining popular staples. Cheese pizza, for example, might come with a side of sausage, giving students an opportunity to incorporate more protein in their lunch while still satisfying those who prefer the basics. For kids who enjoy spicy food, hot sauce is available, along with other condiments like ketchup and mustard. The chefs also introduce different cooking methods, like smoking and barbecue, caramelization, pickling, and braising, to further expand options and flavors.

10:57 a.m.

The first customers of the day—students in kindergarten, 1st grade and 2nd grade—arrive. They’re hungry, and eager to be among the first in line. While the younger students patiently wait for their food to be served, older students set tables with napkins, silverware, and cups. Soon the dining room is filled with a quiet roar and students are talking with friends at their table, asking members of the HandCut Foods team for seconds, or asking Chef Bill [Ramos] if a particular item is safe for them to eat. Ramos knows all of his allergy kids by name, and has almost all of their unique allergies memorized.

Students place their dishes in a bin at the end of their lunch period before returning to their classroom.

11:24 a.m.

As the first lunch period winds down, students carefully scrape any uneaten food into garbage cans, place their plates, silverware, and cups in bins for dirty dishes, and wipe down their tables in preparation for the next round of students to eat. For them, lunch is over. The HandCut Foods team, however, still has more than 500 mouths to feed, plus dishes to wash and counters to wipe, before their day is done. And tomorrow, they’ll do it all over again.

Platinum Standards of Service

The HandCut Foods team has adopted Platinum Service standards developed by The Ritz-Carlton, which includes elements of service and benchmarks for meeting customers’ needs. By upholding hospitality-caliber standards for customer service and food quality, team members are able to anticipate their eaters’ needs, customize dishes, provide timely service, and maintain in-depth knowledge of the menu and ingredients.

New this year, each service station in the Preschool/Lower School/Middle School dining room has three dedicated chefs, instead of the standard two from last year. The chefs are assigned to a designated menu item (protein, starch, or vegetable) and populate each plate based on each individual student’s request. In previous years, the plates would be pre-populated with the day’s menu items and kept under warming lights. Although the new method requires an increase in staff members, it results in fresher food that’s customized to each diner. It also results in less food waste, because kids aren’t getting food they know they won’t eat, and gives staff members an opportunity to answer questions and promote what’s on the day’s menu. They are intimately familiar with each meal, because they made it from scratch a few hours earlier.

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