A Soup(er) School Lunch: A High School Cafeteria Serves Heavenly Soup

Kids have been bad-mouthing school lunches for at least as long as there have been school cafeterias. And it’s tough for parents to disagree when their child’s tales of culinary woe include mystery-meat tacos and mushy, unrecognizable vegetables. 

But it’s not all bad eats in the lunch room. One a la carte lunch item has grown so popular with students at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart High School in Coraopolis that their parents are ordering it for takeout. And it soon will be offered to alumni and other community members as a fundraiser for the school’s OLSH Fund for student programs and activities.

A Souper School Lunch for Kids and AdultsWhen Doug Brannock was hired as executive chef and food-service director in August, he noticed that something he’s pretty good at making wasn’t on the menu: good old-fashioned soup. So Mr. Brannock decided to add it to the high school’s cafeteria offerings once a week.

Soup, he knew, would be a clever way to sneak some veggies into the teenagers’ diets. It also was a delicious way to use up leftovers from the previous day’s meal, saving the school money. What he didn’t anticipate was that that first big pot of homemade chicken noodle would be a runaway hit.

“We figured it might be popular with the staff, but that if the kids didn’t like it, well, we wouldn’t keep doing it,” says Mr. Brannock of Saxonburg, who also prepares meals for the Sisters of the Our Lady of the Sacred Heart convent next door. “But it caught on.” 

So much so, that Mr. Brannock’s soups quickly went from once-a-week to a daily lunch item. Depending on the variety and how cold it is outside (sales are brisker in winter), many of his 3-gallon batches sell out by the end of the school’s third 25-minute lunch period; leftovers go to the sisters. Cost is 50 cents a cup, or $1 a bowl.

Principal Tim Plocinik, who admits to hating soup as a child, is a devotee, as is senior Sara Oros. On a recent Monday, the 17-year-old could barely contain her soup glee as she dished up a big bowl of Italian wedding soup from a large steel pot at the end of the cafeteria steam table. She went heavy on the pasta and meatballs, light on the broth.  

She typically only buys the soup when she packs her lunch, but “I could eat it every day. It’s so delicious,” she said.   

It didn’t take long for Mr. Brannock to capitalize on his success. While working for The Sisters of St. Francis in Whitehall in 2010, he had organized a few Soup Take Out Day fundraisers for the sisters' ministries, and he thought OLSH parents would want to put in a few orders for takeout, too.

One email blast in mid-October and Mr. Brannock’s homemade soup “took on a life of its own,” said Mr. Plocinik, with parents ordering 50 quarts of pumpkin bisque at the first sale in November, raising $235. “We were all surprised how well it took off but of course very pleased, too.”

A second event in December sold 100 quarts for a $425 profit, and Mr. Plocinik expects that amount to double once again when the school extends the next takeout day to the community at large in mid-February. 

Seeing he’s tasked with cooking for kids, you’d think Mr. Brannock’s creations — which get a stamp of approval from a dietitian at West Virginia-based Aladdin Food Service Management that subcontracts with the school — would skew traditional. While his chicken noodle and Italian wedding soups are the biggest sellers, his rotating seasonal selections are anything but standard school-cafeteria fare. They include broccoli and cheddar, cream of potato with pierogi, and even dilled cauliflower.

“They’re really pretty accepting of things, and straight-up chicken soup just won’t do it anymore,” said Mr. Brannock, who learned to cook at Emilia’s Garden, his aunts’ Italian restaurant in Harmar. He has spent most of his cooking career in commercial kitchens after a stint in the Army. But only if the food meets certain standards.

Back when he was a kid, he said, the soup served at school came straight out of a can. As a result, “It was garbage.” Today’s students, he noted, expect so much more.

Article by Gretchen McKay first appeared in Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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