Chefs help to Change the Scene of School Nutrition

(… an update from a previous post..)

Great Grains Culinary Boot Camp for our sta

Three years ago, our district made the very 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), intent on serving the children in our district the healthiest meals possible and striving to maintain our customer base.  Our strategy & goals were for our chef to help us manage these ever changing AND challenging guidelines.   Our plan was to have our chef assist us with recipe & menu development, 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 Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro
works with students in classroom
school garden cooking activity

As I look back at the past 3 years,  I am continually amazed at what a fantastic decision adding a chef to our team was!  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 and even grown.  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 2015 study by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has shown that “chef enhanced school meals increase healthy food consumption.”
The study shows evidence 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 & supports 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 our chef, Chef Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro as part of our School Nutrition team.   Chef Sam’s culinary expertise has not only significantly impacted our staff’s training level, acceptance of our menus and our participation but her presence & influence as part of our school nutrition team has encouraged students to embrace nutritious & healthy choices.   
Chef Sam’s duties include developing and taste testing new

recipes & foods, training and supporting staff as we increase “from scratch” cooking, adapting existing recipes to meet current USDA guidelines while maintaining palatability, and consistent culinary skill building with staff to increase productivity, efficiency and safety in the kitchen.  Chef Sam frequently works in the school kitchens, alongside school nutrition staff, making delicious and healthy meals.  This school year, we have been rolling out several new & exciting menu items, as well as working with our own signature herb & spice blends to decrease sodium in our recipes.  Across the board, the students are responding with rave reviews!

happy customers @ Windham High School

Chef Sam is a frequent visitor in classes, weaving good nutrition & healthy eating into our district’s curriculum.  In class, students get to cook recipes such as curried carrot soup & carrot muffins made with school grown carrots.  They also get to taste test recipes & 
name them fun creative names for future menus.  Lessons include learning to read nutrition labels & introduction to new, healthy foods.  After school cooking classes also help to teach students more about healthy cooking and eating, as well as serve as a bridge to our districts families, as we send home samples and recipes and we get to meet parents during pick up time after class. 

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

Adding a chef to our School Nutrition team has been a practical, sustainable way to embrace the Chefs Move to Schools movement. Chef Sam has been an integral part of the growth of our School Nutrition Program.  Our school nutrition team has passion & commitment to serving children the healthiest, most delicious & nutritious meals, and having a chef on staff has infused our team with fresh vision for the future of School Nutrition.

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