Chefs Move to Schools

As I wing my way across the country to attend the School Nutrition Association’s Leadership conference, I find myself pondering my next blog post.  Stuck in my head is a “part II” Make Lunch, Not War post about the players and problems facing school nutrition professionals as we look forward to Child Nutrition Reauthorization 2015 (CNR15).  That post seems stuck in my head, without an eloquent or succinct way for me to continue that discussion.   It just all feels so negative & political…. And it just doesn’t seem to want to come out of my fingertips to the page.  And so, I will continue to push that pot to the back burner and let it simmer some more, as I focus more on productive, and more relevant posts. 

RSU #14 Culinary Boot Camp Training
Almost two years ago, our district made the strategic decision to hire a chef as part of our school nutrition department’s management team.    At the time, we were knee deep into implementing the nutrition guidelines of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA).    Our strategy & goals were for our chef to help us manage these new changes by assisting us with recipe & menu development, managing nutrient analysis, educating and supporting staff to develop culinary skills and techniques, increasing local foods in our school cafeterias, and increasing interest and excitement at the school level by regularly cooking in our school kitchens at “not guest” Chef events.
Chef Sam portions school made breadsticks
As I look back at the past 2 years, I firmly believe that this was one of the best decisions Windham Raymond School Nutrition program has ever made.    At a critical time, when so many school nutrition programs have battled public perception and experienced decreasing participation, our program has thrived.  Over the past several years, breakfast and lunch participation has been increasing at all grade levels.  It is a frequent occurrence for parents to email us for recipes or comment that they wish THEY had so many great choices for lunch everyday. 
Why a chef?? 
A recent study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has shown that “chef enhanced school meals increase healthy food consumption.”
The article explains that while hosting Guest Chef events at schools can add excitement and lend positive public relations to school nutrition programs, having a chef on staff who tests and develops recipes and trains school nutrition staff results in children learning to like AND enjoy healthy whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. The study showed that hiring a chef who works with district school nutrition personnel improved the quality, flavor and palatability of the food, and not only decreases plate waste, but increases school meal participation.   While our district was not part of this study, it could have been.  The research and outcomes have been mirrored in our district, since hiring Chef Sam as part of our School Nutrition staff.
Cheese filled cannelloni 
Chef Sam’s duties range from developing and taste testing the recipes, training and supporting staff as we increase “from scratch” cooking, adapting existing recipes to meet current USDA guidelines while maintaining palatability, and culinary skill building with staff to increase productivity, efficiency and safety in the kitchen.  In addition, she teaches an afterschool cooking class for students and oversees our weekend backpack food program.   Chef Sam frequently works in the school kitchens, alongside school nutrition staff, making delicious and healthy meals.  A current favorite is cheese filled cannelloni with freshly rolled pasta sheets, accompanied by a school baked whole grain roll, garden fresh salad, and a fruit & veggie bar.   Fresh pasta in schools?  Yes, please! 
Knife skills training @ Cooking Club
Chefs are practically celebrities these days, with so many cooking shows on television and in the media, and school chefs are no exception.  There is incredible excitement when Chef Sam is in the kitchen.  Her delicious & nutritious health centered approach to cooking & eating inspires our menus, inspires our students and inspires us!   Any school district looking to build participation, credibility, excitement and enthusiasm for the school nutrition program should consider adding a chef to their team.  When chefs become part of a school nutrition team, the results are increased school meal enthusiasm, increased participation, decreased plate waste, and most importantly, increased consumption of healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables and whole grains in children.
Fresh & Local – Lasagna made with fresh pasta

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