Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Chef Sam & I have been fortunate enough the past few years to have had the opportunity to travel around the country, sharing our School Nutrition Program’s success strategies.  Hitting the road to share our story often inspires us to do some soul searching & re-evaluating where we have been and how we have gotten where we are now.  Over the past 5 years, participation in our school breakfast and lunch program has grown by double digit percentages.   More students are eating school breakfast and lunch than ever before.   Our  participation has increased,  we are serving more  whole food, more locally grown foods, more recipes prepared onsite and community support for our school nutrition program is growing.

We are often asked now we have managed to accomplish this… and honestly, it’s not one single thing that has lead to our success, but a whole bunch of strategies that we have implemented… and that we continue to implement… that have really changed School Nutrition in our district, RSU #14 in Maine.   It all started with vision.  5 years ago, we were fortunate enough to have a visioning meeting, funded through a grant we had received.   We invited community members, members of our administrative team, school nutrition staff, school staff and school committee members.  Through this visioning meeting we established our vision and our goals for the way forward.

Now, I’m not saying that you need to have a fancy visioning meeting to establish your mission and vision, though for us, it was very helpful.  It is essential, however,  to sit down with key staff members and map out your mission and vision for the future.  A mission & vision can serve as your roadmap and guide as you make decisions that will effect your department.   One key decision that was made at our visioning meeting was a decision to consider adding a chef to our school nutrition team.   We did not rush right out & hire a chef after this meeting…. but when presented with the opportunity to replace a key, district-wide staff person, we utilized the opportunity to fill that position with a chef who could work district-wide with our team.

Another key strategy that came out of our visioning meeting was to increase our focus on local food, farm to school and school gardens in our School Nutrition Program.  Increasing our offerings of local foods – locally grown veggies, as well as locally raised meat – has really helped us to bring the freshest food possible to our customers – the students in RSU#14.

These changes – hiring a chef & focusing on locally grown & locally produced foods – didn’t happen immediately after our visioning meeting, nor, once implemented, did they immediately lead to increased participation.  Of course, we needed a way to “get the word out”… a way to inform our customers that our program was changing and we were offering fresher, more delicious food!  Enter social media….!  As our school nutrition program was changing and so many exciting things were happening, we decided to start a Facebook Page for our School Nutrition Program as a way to document the changes and communicate with the public.  The rationale was fairly simple…  I was using Facebook personally and I knew that so many other parents, moms especially, were using Facebook daily, and often from their mobile devices.  What better way to communicate with our community and show them pictures of what was happening in our kitchens than by using a social media platform that they were already using daily!  It was easy, it was accessible, it was free…  so we started our Facebook page.  Gradually, we also started Instagram & Twitter pages and we continue to use these social media platforms and grow our audience.

Our marketing strategies don’t stop at utilizing social media.  We also strongly believe in offering fun,

Frozen Fun Friday Breakfast

theme based menus for breakfast and lunch, especially at the youngest grades, as a way of making school meals fun and gaining new customers.  Our monthly Fun Friday Breakfasts at our elementary schools have helped grow our breakfast participation from less than 10% district wide to a regular average daily participation at breakfast of 30% or more.  Our fun themes might be a Dr. Suess theme, a menu based on the popular Frozen movie or even a Tropical Luau theme.   Creative menu naming, student chosen recipes, fun decorations, staff support…. all are essential ingredients to a successful menu promotion.

The  most important strategy that we have is building up & investing in our  amazing team.  I mean these people are real super heroes – they are so innovative & we are in awe of their dedication to feeding healthy food to the students in our district.   Beginning in 2012, we started utilizing culinary boot camps for departmental training.  Those trainings continue every summer, and Chef Sam offers “mini” trainings in each kitchen throughout the school year.   Chef Sam is quick to jump in & support our staff if they are struggling to prepare a new menu item, and this support has enabled our gradual move from a freezer to oven operation to one that now is approximately 85% scratch cooking!

Honestly…. these changes did not happen overnight.  Anyone who has heard me speak about this will know that I am a firm believer in the “baby-steps” approach to change.  We did not switch to scratch cooking all at once, but recipe by recipe – very slowly adding recipes as we became proficient.  There is no magic wand … and it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and trial and error.  We test recipes at our smallest school, working out the kinks, gaining staff & student feedback, adjusting as necessary. Only then will a recipe or menu item be rolled out on a larger scale.

From our visioning meeting way back in 2012 to back-to-school in 2017…  it is all about hard work, dedication and team work!  It will not happen overnight, and it may not happen in a year…  we are 5 years down the road, and we’ve made so many changes!  Who knows where the next five years will take us!   Our fantastic team believes that healthy food fuels hungry minds and we are dedicated to our vision.  Teamwork is what it takes to make the dream work.

Very Veggie Culinary Boot Camp
with Chef Sam & School Nutrition Staff from RSU#14

One thought on “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work”

  1. This is a great post. I'm just starting out in our school district and am so overwhelmed with how to make the changes we need to. My biggest hurdle is getting kitchen staff buy in. We have a few high production kitchens that just don't feel like they can manage to scratch cook more and feed all the kids, which I totally am sympathetic to. We've definitely started out with baby steps and I'm trying to have a vision of where we want to go, given where we are. It's tough but utilizing my network of awesome peers is SOOOOO incredibly helpful. Joining facebook and tips for school meals that rock has changed everything. I hope to keep the momentum going and keep our district headed in the right direction, one small step at a time.


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