New Arizonan Cuisine

Arizona's School Lunches Are About to Get a Distinctly Arizonan Boost

Charleen Badman
Charleen Badman Chris Malloy
Charleen Badman, award-winning chef at FnB, has set her eyes on a new challenge: developing recipes using Indigenous ingredients for schools across Arizona.

Though Badman has risen to the pinnacle of restaurant culture, she considers this new seemingly modest task formidable. Why? She believes it’s harder to develop a recipe for a school lunchroom than for FnB.

Badman will be developing four dishes, together with the assistance of Tamara Stanger, formerly chef at Cotton & Copper. Each will contain one American Indian ingredient. Their new effort started with a Team Nutrition Training Grant, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded to the Arizona Department of Education’s Health & Nutrition Services Division last year.

According to Jessa Zuck, the Arizona Department of Education’s “fresh fruit and vegetable program specialist,” the grant aims “to assist in helping schools offer meals that are supported by recipes that utilize local agricultural products and recipes that reflect local food preparation practices and taste preferences.” Zuck’s division has worked with Badman through her Blue Watermelon Project before. She says that Badman was an easy choice to lead the project after H&NS got the grant.

Grant funding became available in November 2020. Dishes are slated to land in schools by January 2022. Across the state, Local Education Agencies that participate in the National School Lunch Program will have the option to add these meals to their programs (though why wouldn’t they?).

click to enlarge Tamara Stanger, former chef at Cotton & Copper, is also assisting with children's midday meals. - JACOB TYLER DUNN
Tamara Stanger, former chef at Cotton & Copper, is also assisting with children's midday meals.
Jacob Tyler Dunn
Eleven months might seem like ample time to develop four recipes for kids who are likely happy to munch pizza or chicken nuggets, especially for two chefs known for their starburst creativity and churning out brilliant new dishes at a rapid clip.

The challenge stems not just from developing recipes for school lunchrooms, but from doing so using the particular ingredients that are the fulcrum of the program: tepary beans, heirloom blue corn, White Sonora Wheat, and winter squash. These aren’t grown at much scale, even locally, meaning they tend to be expensive ingredients.

And school meals have low price ceilings.

“You’re trying to get your meal to be about a dollar,” Badman says.

Further, nutritional obstacles loom. When thinking about her meals, Badman has to monitor and curb “how much salt you can use, where your sodium levels are, making sure you have 2 ounces of protein, all of those things.”

Lastly, there is a final boss: the fickle tastes of kids. Zuck says there will be “recipe tasting and feedback from students directly” before recipes are finito.

Using grant funding, Badman and Stanger have received Zoom education from Brigaid. Led by Dan Giusti, a former chef at Noma, a Copenhagen restaurant considered one of the world’s best, Brigaid teaches practical methods to chefs involved in boosting food quality and nutrition at schools.

click to enlarge A "school lunch" from a past Blue Watermelon Project fundraiser. - CHRIS MALLOY
A "school lunch" from a past Blue Watermelon Project fundraiser.
Chris Malloy
Even with the knowledge and software Brigaid provided, the latter helping greatly with nutritional tabulations, the road should prove challenging. Mostly, it comes down to price restrictions. These collide with our country’s agricultural system, which makes some ingredients artificially cheap, and others unduly expensive.

How can tepary beans, which cost north of $5, center a $1 lunch tray?

“That’s something that we’re really going to have to open up and really examine and figure out,” Badman says. “Does it sound like it’s a great idea, or are we going to do it one time? I want to do something that’s viable.”

However the dishes shake out, young Arizonan scholars will be lucky to have Badman and Stanger using their talents on our state’s finest ingredients for their midday meals. It beats sloppy joes by miles while celebrating people and ingredients that make Arizona cuisine exceptional. Badman looks forward to navigating the path to the final dishes, she says.

“Having the opportunity to bring these ingredients to the lunch tray is really exciting.”
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Chris Malloy, former food editor and current food critic at Phoenix New Times, has written for various local and national outlets. He has scrubbed pots in a restaurant kitchen, earned graduate credit for a class about cheese, harvested garlic in Le Marche, and rolled pastas like cappellacci stuffed with chicken liver. He writes reviews but also narrative stories on the food world's margins.
Contact: Chris Malloy