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

Tried & True….

We are often asked about “buy in”.  How we build trust amongst our customers, how we build customer satisfaction,  how we keep them coming back.  One of the best ways we have found is to involve students in the process.   We test recipes, we gain feedback, we are always trying to change for the better.  

Today, Chef Sam worked on a recipe that we are trying out for the Kitchen Wisdom panel for the School Nutrition Association.  The recipe was for a Roast Beef & Onion Sandwich.  Roast beef, tomato, avocado, and a roasted onion & red pepper “relish”.  We opted to put the sandwich on a whole grain tortilla wrap, instead of a roll.  

These sandwiches combined some very popular flavors.  Freshly sliced roast beef, creamy avocado and the delicious onion & red pepper relish.  Needless to say they were a smash hit.  We packaged them together with a piece of fruit and/or some dried fruit trail mix, and a carton of milk for a quick grab & go reimbursable meal.    Our feedback on the recipe:  absolutely a winner, though we really like them better as a wrap vs. served on a roll, but that could be a local preference: our high school students are crazy about wraps.

The real deal here is this:  kids like to be treated like customers.  Not only that, but they like to have some input.  Yes, of course we have to follow guidelines, and we reinforce this to our customers, the students, all the time.    Beginning at the earliest grades, we are cooking with them in the classroom, involving them in school gardens, training them to use a salad bar appropriately.  As students get older, we include them in recipe taste testing.   Recipe naming is also a great idea to gain student acceptance and buy in.  Our district’s favorite baked beans are named Chef Sam’s Better Bacon Baked Beans, and several years ago, we named a sandwich a Panem Panini, to coincide with the opening of one of the Hunger Games movies.

Engaging and involving your customers is a win/win.  Students who are more involved and feel like “part” of the School Nutrition program will support the program with loyalty.  Participation goes up, students are eating healthy, nutritious meals.  This has been a tried and true formula in our district,  resulting in increased participation over the past 5 years.  It takes work and strategy, but it is well worth it in the end!

Veggie Tales

We interrupt this regularly scheduled blog post to bring you this message about vegetables.  That’s right.  Vegetables.  See, vegetables are a big deal in my world.  Making sure our school nutrition menus include the correct amount of vegetables and the correct amount of vegetable “sub-groups” is like a monthly game of sudoku.     

There has been a lot of clamoring lately about the vegetables.  Currently, students are required to take at least 1/2 cup of either fruit and/or vegetables, with every school lunch.   This was a change under the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010.  Previously, students could refuse the fruits & veggies offered with a school meal… they could take them or leave them.  Now, they have to take some, which has resulted in a lot of people saying that it’s our trash cans that are on the receiving end of all these 1/2 c. servings of fruits & veggies.   

But what I want to share today is a vegetable story.  A story about some little girls.  and their vegetables. and how they learned to like their vegetables.  

One of the best things that Chef Sam & I get to do it go into a classroom and cook with kids and teach them about healthy eating. A couple of months ago, we were with a class of 3rd graders, making Curried Carrot Soup.  The students were peeling and chopping the carrots, sautéing the carrots & onions in some olive oil, then adding broth, curry & seasoning and eventually blending the soup with an immersion blender.    

When it came time to sample the soup, one student tried a sip, wrinkled her nose, and said she didn’t like it.   We told her that was fine, she didn’t need to like it, but we were happy that she had helped make it.  All around her, classmates were trying the soup and making decisions.  Did they like it?  Maybe?  Dislike it?    The girl came back and asked if she could try another taste, so we gave her another cup, and she walked away, tasting the soup.  This happened at least 4 times, when she finally came back and reported, “you know, I think this soup is growing on me!  I think I am starting to like it!”    Success!  From dislike to like in less than an hour.  

This was one of the success stories that I shared in Washington DC in February.  Interestingly enough, it was during that trip, that one of my own vegetable dislikes was challenged.  You see, for my entire life, I was a brussel sprout hater.  I can still remember sitting at the dinner table when I was only 7 or 8 years old, absolutely unable to swallow the brussel sprouts.   It was one of those nights when I wasn’t going to be allowed to leave the table until I ate those things.  It was a battle of the wills, and a very long night.  I never did swallow those brussels sprouts and I never ate them again.  That is, until my trip to Washington.  

Our first evening in DC, we ate at this excellent restaurant called Zaytinya.  My friend ordered a plate of “crispy roasted brussel sprouts”, and I secretly wondered why anyone would eat a whole plate of brussels sprouts.  And then, she offered me some.  I thought of the student and the curried carrot soup, and I thought of myself, sitting at that dinner table, so many years ago.   Remembering the student, I gathered my courage and decided to try them – the presentation was gorgeous, and they smelled delicious.  And guess what?  I loved them!  I became obsessed with them and recently recreated the recipe at home.  THAT is how much I loved these brussel sprouts.   

So here is the moral of the story:  learning to like vegetables takes time.  It might take an hour, it might take decades.  Freshness, preparation method, seasoning, presentation… all of these factors come into play.    Creativity, imagination, and determination.  

Kids in schools are learning to like vegetables!  We serve carrot fries (roasted carrot sticks), Chef Sam’s Better Baked Beans, roasted cauliflower, kale & apple salad, butternut squash soup, roasted edamame salad, the list goes on & on.  The key is lots of choices, delicious recipes, lots of time, trained staff.  Allow students fun and friendly opportunities to try new foods, maybe even let them dream up crazy names for them.   

There are discussions swirling around about relaxing the fruit & vegetable requirement with the reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.  I for one, am in favor of keeping the fruits & vegetables on the table.  Because, after all, learning to like new foods takes time.  

Make Lunch…. Not War. Part I

It’s been said before: “As Maine goes, so goes the nation”… and this may be true.   Recently  Kevin Concannon, U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, told C-SPAN that school nutrition  programs in Maine are some of the best in the nation.   A recent count shows that 147 schools in Maine, representing 46 school districts, have achieved awards through USDA’s Healthier US School Challenge (HUSSC).  HUSSC award winning schools have shown to meet a rigorous set of achievements involving physical activity, nutrition education, and nutrition standards in the school meals program.  Go Team Maine!  

Recently, a group of colleagues and I traveled to Washington to tell our stories – stories from the school nutrition front lines. Stories of success.  Stories about kids, tasting foods for the first time, stories about feeding hungry students and nourishing lives.  Powerful stories about making a difference.  

  Visiting Capitol Hill          photo credit: Herb Perone

While in Washington, we met colleagues from across the country,  colleagues committed to the nutritional integrity of school meals.   We heard stories of success and innovation, stories from California, Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania…  The truth is, there are exciting school nutrition happening all across the United States.  

It seems, however, that recently, we have been distracted by a food fight.  On one side of the lunch war, we have  celebrities such as Jamie Oliver and “mommy bloggers”. Social media is bombarded with staged pictures of school meals from “around the world”.  It seems as though so called experts are intent on waging war against school nutrition programs, smearing the integrity of the school meals program, like jelly being smeared on a peanut butter sandwich.  

No one has defended the School Nutrition program more eloquently and succinctly than my friend Dayle Hayes, MS, RD, of School Meals that Rock, in her recent blog post response to the so called School Lunch Haters:

The truth is, the battle gets tiring.  We want to make lunch, not war.

The battle, the fight, the haters… its discouraging AND distracting.   I would challenge all of the haters, critics and celebrity “experts” to develop a menu within the USDA guidelines, and with in the allotted budget ($3.00 per lunch including food/labor/supplies/equipment).   Make sure  that the menu is whole grain rich, includes 8 oz fat free or low fat milk, healthy servings of protein, and plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.  And then, make sure the kids like and eat it.    It’s a challenge. But. We. Are. Doing. It!

In our district, we spent the month of March eating our way through the alphabet, fruits and vegetables, A-Z.  Kids we able to experience everything from Asparagus & Arugula to Kiwi & Quinoa to Zucchini.  

Students tasted, tried and learned.  They were exposed to delicious foods they have never tried before.  This is how we choose to fight the food fight – by making lunch and making it exciting and delicious.  

This is just part of the battle, but it is absolutely the most public part.   The second part is that the need for increased funding for school nutrition programs is critical.  I will save that Make Lunch, Not War post for another day.   

Happy Easter and nutritious eating!  

Healthy food… it’s what we do.

Over the past several months, I’ve been asked a lot of questions about our school meals program. How we do what we do… why we do what we do?  I’ve been thinking a lot about it.  Why are we successful when others struggle ?  The simple, quick answer is passion.  We have assembled a team of workers who are passionate about feeding kids healthy food.  But aren’t most school nutrition personnel passionate?  I have met many who share our passion and vision.  We do work hard.  I work hard.  Our staff work hard.  We adapt, we change, we innovate, we adjust.

The School Nutrition Guidelines that are part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act of 2010 are challenging.   School Nutrition has become a political hot potato, which is sad, because it has made feeding kids so unbelievably complicated.   The battle about the guidelines rages on.  Move forward with the guidelines or roll them back?  Whole grains or no whole grains? Fruits? Vegetables? Sodium?

For years, I have thought about blogging about this…  and so, here I go.  I know nothing about blogging.  It is, if nothing else, a place to catalogue my thoughts and ideas.  A place to debrief after an exciting or a stressful day.   And maybe I’ll even share a few pictures and recipes.