Robin Obert-Magturo wasn't sure what to expect when she walked into the cafeteria at Southeast High School with a wok and a bunch of fresh vegetables.
Gov. Mary Fallin's former executive chef, now running the kitchen for Oklahoma City Public Schools, was about to introduce a new menu item to students more accustomed to pizza and fried food than “Happy Trails Stir-Fry over Steamed Brown Rice.”
Obert-Magturo was pleasantly surprised by the response to the stir-fry she made before their eyes with two types of cabbage, snow peas, red onions, green and red bell peppers and brown rice.
“We actually had kids coming back for seconds,” she said recently. “I would say at least 300 kids came through the line at least once.”
As district chef, Obert-Magturo is charged with satisfying the palates of more than 41,000 students while meeting strict nutrition guidelines set forth by the U.S. Agriculture Department.
The district contracts with Chartwells, a provider of dining services for public and private school dining services nationwide. Together, they are phasing out processed foods high in sodium, fat and calories.
“We're focusing on cooking from scratch rather than offering pre-made burritos or packaged food,” she said. “We want to educate students and their parents, teach them ways to add flavor without salt. Herbs are a huge thing. We'll add garlic or fresh cilantro or basil.”
The stir-fry, which tested favorably at other schools in the district, was introduced Friday as a menu item districtwide, according to Jason Edwards, director of child nutrition for Oklahoma City Public Schools.
Edwards said planning healthy meals for 41,000 students is a balancing act, particularly when it comes to satisfying their tastebuds. The district spends between $24 million and $26 million annually on child nutrition.
“A lot of people don't realize that child nutrition programs are expected to put high-quality, healthy and (USDA) compliant meals on student trays for about $3 (per student),” Edwards said. “That's very difficult.”
School board member Laura Massenat said nutrition has a direct effect on student performance and behavior at school.
“Better nutrition correlates to higher test scores, better memory, better classroom behavior and a reduction in ADHD, suspensions and repeating grade levels,” Massenat said.
Cooking from whole ingredients also reduces exposure to preservatives, artificial dyes and flavors that contribute to poor health, she said.
Senior Odalis Celaya, 18, was among those who approved of the stir-fry at Southeast High on Nov. 14.
“In America there are a lot of obese people,” Celaya said. “So I think it's a good idea to start eating healthy at a young age.”
Obert-Magturo, 53, received her training at a young age. The Arizona native grew up around her family's restaurant business, where she developed a passion for healthy and nutritious food.
She moved to Oklahoma City, where she attended the Culinary Institute of Platt College and later became an instructor. She graduated from a culinary management degree program through Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2010.
Obert-Magturo prepared meals for Fallin and her family for two years before taking the district job.
“Working for the governor was an absolutely amazing experience,” she said. “But I felt like this was my time to step out and make a difference.”
As part of her job description, Obert-Magturo frequently visits different schools and cooks new meals for students.
“I love talking to the kids and getting their feedback,” she said. “I love seeing their faces when they try something they've never had before and realize that they like it.”