Meet Our New School Food Operations Expert
Jeremy West spent 8 years as Director of Nutrition Services at Greeley-Evans School District 6 in Colorado. Now he's taking his expertise national.
Jeremy West, SNS, recently joined the Chef Ann Foundation after serving as Director of Nutrition Services at Greeley-Evans School District 6 for eight years. We wanted to know what led him to school food, the challenges he’s faced along the way, and why it’s important to feed kids healthy, nutritious food in school.
What inspired you to get involved with school food?
I was working in healthcare at the time, but I had my culinary degree and had worked as a dietary manager for 5-6 years. I wanted to do something that was more preventative, whic really fits with school food.
What I love about school food is that you get the opportunity to work with people in the prime state of their life for learning and developing lifelong habits. It gets harder as you get older. Making the healthy choice easier for students was really attractive; to be able to offer something that hopefully will carry on once students get out of K-12. Something they can draw from for the rest of their life.
Can you tell us about a challenge you faced while working in school food and how you overcame it?
I think a lot of directors face this… the perception of school food versus the reality. That is always a challenge for people to understand; [they] wanted to get upset when we served pizza but they don’t understand it’s healthier pizza, handcrafted with special ingredients.
It’s a challenge to balance what kids like to eat with what, nutritionally, we want them to eat. Without student participation, we can’t buy great food or do great things with our wellness program. It’s about asking: what entrees can we provide to students that they get excited about? How can we help our community understand why the program is important and what we’re trying to accomplish?
Social media was a helpful tool that we could use, as a district food service department, to promote our program and connect with stakeholders. I went to every community group that would have me. I went to these meetings to just really explain why everyone should care about school food, the changes that we’re proposing, and how the community could help and give us feedback—basically, involving stakeholders so they have ownership in that process.
We went to parent groups, held one-on-ones, went to PTA meetings to answer questions and really talk to parents. We also did open house events three times a year so people could come in and see what was going on.
You have known about our organization for a while. What made you interested in working with CAF? What are you most excited about?
Recently, we moved back to our hometown to care for family, and I was looking for some opportunities to stay involved with school food. Understanding the work CAF does, it was attractive to me to continue to help districts make scratch-cooked food, not just in Colorado but really nationwide.
A lot of what Chef Ann Foundation supports through various programs are things that I support. I want to see free food in schools and help school districts go from whatever point they’re at on the continuum and just help them get to the next level. I want to know what’s important for their community and how I can help support that.
I’m diving into the Get Schools Cooking 2016 cohort and it’s exciting to learn about the districts, the changes they’ve been able to make, and the obstacles they’re facing. Just working with them as a mentor to help problem solve that so they can continue their journeys.
Why is school food important?
To me, school food is really important because we support learning. Cafeteria staff are really the only people that see every student every day. Whether we’re feeding them or not, they’re coming to our cafeteria. School food staff are really in a position to be not just that friendly face, but also that person offering something that meets a basic need. Hunger isn’t always evident.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you would give to a school looking to do more scratch cooking?
When working as Assistant Director of Student Nutrition Services in Colorado Springs (prior to Greeley), I knew what I wanted to accomplish, but I wasn’t quite sure how to get there. It’s not a sign of weakness to reach out to organizations like CAF or others in your state and just ask for help.
I think some of the other things you can do is go visit other districts that cook from scratch. Having an assessment myself was so helpful for me to have outside eyes looking from top to bottom—finances, commodities, staffing—that third party perspective. That really helped us go from zero to sixty really quick because it gave me a game plan.
Don’t be afraid to reach out and don’t be afraid to fail. We tried making mac and cheese from scratch and it turned out neon green. I took it off the menu for a year and we redeveloped the recipe and put it back on. I told my staff, “We’re going to mess up, figure out what happens, fix it and move on. Just because that didn’t work doesn’t mean we’re going to go back to boxed mac and cheese.” Give staff permission to fail with the intent to learn from it and make it better.
There’s also so many examples now of districts doing scratch cooking, so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Find out what’s working.
I recommend starting out by taking School Food 101 (a School Food Institute course). I wish I would have had School Food 101 years ago because there’s so many people that just don’t understand the basics of running a child nutrition program, more so principals and new staff. I think that course is a great tool to understand school food, so those adversaries can become your advocates.
The Chef Ann Foundation is excited to welcome Jeremy to the team, and look forward to his future work with districts just like yours!
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