WALLA WALLA - A pot of boiling water tosses elbow macaroni around to a tender but firm consistency. Karin Bowman and Paula Merson tend to the oversized pot, adding cool water to halt the cooking before carefully emptying the water into a drain built into the ground.
Warmed milk, margarine, and shreds of cheese are added to the pasta to make a smooth, creamy dish. The macaroni and cheese for the day, enough to serve about 80 students, is nearly done.
The time is just before 10 a.m. at Sharpstein Elementary, and the kitchen employees have been at work since about 5 a.m. preparing the day's meals.
Each day, hundreds of meals are served at each of the district's 10 schools, with more than 3,000 lunches eaten in a single day. A majority of those lunches - nearly 2,000 - are eaten by elementary school children. Those figures don't include the hundreds of breakfasts served weekly.
In recent years, school meals and nutrition have become hot topics, leading to drastic changes in what is prepared and how it is offered in schools. First Lady Michelle Obama launched the Let's Move initiative, to encourage healthier meals at schools and at home, and to get kids outdoors and active.
And television personality Jamie Oliver - also known as the Naked Chef - continued the conversation with his recent "Food Revolution" reality show, where he challenged schools and families to replace processed foods with fresh meals.
Walla Walla Public Schools participate in the National School Lunch Program, which gives schools subsidies for meals - many of which are served free to children who meet guidelines. Federal participation has helped bring positive changes, but still presents challenges in what children are served.
Among the changes has been more fresh fruits and vegetables offered every day. New guidelines also increased the amount of whole grains being offered, cut back on sugars and fats, and did away with fried foods.
The challenges include tight budgets that encourage using precooked, frozen foods that require less labor to prepare. But along with those offerings are "Chef's Choice," or in-house cooked meals - like the macaroni and cheese - that are offered three days a week and give a break from the pizza, hamburgers, chicken nuggets and burritos that are synonymous as kid-friendly fare and ubiquitous on school menus.
For Pam Milleson, director of the Walla Walla Public Schools Food Services department, the balance is in offering choices children will eat, while staying within the $2.74 that the government reimburses per child.
"We would love to be able to do that," she said about Oliver's Food Revolution. "But we can't do that on $2.74."
That sum is the federal reimbursement for meals offered free to children. Walla Walla is a high poverty region, where just over 50 percent of public school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
Money from the federal subsidies, and from families who pay out-of-pocket, cover the cost of the district's Food Services program, which operates like a small business within the district. Milleson said the cost of a meal covers food and supplies, and the salaries and benefits of her employees.
To save costs, Walla Walla Public Schools belongs to the Three Rivers Cooperative, Milleson said. With more than a dozen districts participating, food departments are able to get the best prices from food vendors.
Walla Walla has three main vendors: Food Services of America for its commodity foods; Bill's Produce of Yakima for fresh fruits and vegetables; and Daisy Milk for its dairy.
Food Services of America offers canned goods as well as precooked meals and meats that are expected to meet child nutrition and food-preparation standards.
Most school entrees are frozen and arrive precooked. Raw meat is rarely handled in the kitchens, except during Thanksgiving when turkeys are made from scratch. And there are also multiple entrees to choose from every day.
So while the macaroni and cheese was cooking at Sharpstein, the kitchen staff finished preparing the day's other offerings. Chicken nuggets warming in an oven were checked to see if they'd reached the right internal temperature.
Bowman opened the oven door, and speared four nuggets from a tray with an instant read thermometer. The indicator pushed just over 170 degrees.
"A little hot, but that's good," she explained. Target temperatures are between 140 and 160 degrees when warming frozen entrees, she said.
Around the kitchen, other items were waiting. Hamburgers on a tray were steamed and ready to be placed between buns and wrapped. Trays of pizzas emerged. Burritos were heating.
Preparing the other four entrees took less labor than the macaroni and cheese, when clean-up is factored. All five dishes would eventually be offered to children, with the knowledge that some kids will be drawn to particular items.
While some parents may cringe at the thought of burgers, pizza and nuggets as the daily norm, Milleson believes part of it is in the eye of the beholder. A child who picks a hamburger for the day is getting a serving of grains through the bun, and a helping of protein through the beef.
There are also many possibilities to build on that burger with lettuce, tomato slices and even jalapeos among the daily vegetable choices.
"Getting kids to eat is our main goal," she said.
Milleson said the key is encouraging children to make healthy choices on their own. That often takes the work of not just schools, but families.
"I think it has to be in partnership," she said. "It's been an age-old problem, getting kids to eat vegetables."
Bowman encouraged parents critical of the food services program to come and visit their school's cafeteria.
"I think parents have to really come and see what the children have to choose from," Bowman said. "We have spinach, and all this healthy stuff that some kids probably never see at home. We have so many different choices, they don't have to have pizza every day."
More information on Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign: