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Healthy School Food Pathway Fellows are Halfway There

As they approached the midpoint of the Healthy School Food Pathway (HSFP) Fellowship, the program’s inaugural cohort visited the Culinary Institute of Child Nutrition (CICN) in Oxford, MS! Read on to learn about the Fellows’ exciting experience learning and practicing fundamental culinary skills for operating scratch-cook school meal programs.

The inaugural cohort of the Healthy School Food Pathway (HSFP) Fellowship recently gathered in Oxford, MS, for two days of training at the Culinary Institute of Child Nutrition (CICN). Fellow Christina Lawson from Western Placer Unified School District (CA) described it as “the best part of the Fellowship so far,” which was a high bar to reach given all that the Fellows have accomplished over the first five months of the Fellowship, including:

  • Participating in 17 virtual learning sessions covering:
    • Diversity, equity, and inclusion from an anti-oppression lens

    • Leadership development grounded in the principles of coaching

    • Human resources in the school environment

    • Nutrition in the context of scratch-cooked school food

  • Conducting site visits to six premier K-12 scratch-cook meal programs

  • Attending the inaugural ScratchWorks Gathering in Austin, TX

  • Developing proposals for their Capstone Projects, which will put their learning into practice and create positive change in their districts

Gaining hands-on culinary experience at CICN was a memorable way to mark the midpoint of the yearlong Fellowship, thanks to the excellent training provided by CICN chefs and the connections the Fellows were able to foster working together in the training kitchen.

Strength in Partnership

One of the key goals of the Fellowship is to expand the Fellows’ networks and expose them to a diverse range of experts in all aspects of school food. Given CICN’s deep expertise in training school food professionals on culinary skills for scratch-cooked meals, they were a natural choice for partnership for the Fellowship. Fellow Iris Tirado of Concordia Charter Academy (AZ) called coming to Oxford, MS, for the training, which she has wanted to do ever since she started working in school food service, “a dream come true.”

CICN’s parent organization, the Institute for Child Nutrition (ICN), has provided training to school nutrition programs for over 30 years. More recently, ICN and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have collaborated to form CICN, whose mission is “to increase the culinary skills of school nutrition programs by providing culinary training programs and resources to support child nutrition program (CNP) operators to prepare and serve healthy, culinary-inspired school meals from scratch and elevate the cafeteria atmosphere.”

Over their two days at CICN, Fellows learned from trainers Chef Patrick Garmong and Chef Garrett Berdan about recipe standardization; cooking with raw proteins like chicken and lentils; and the foundations of training excellence. These training topics were intentionally chosen to help Fellows increase scratch cooking in their own districts:

  • Recipe standardization is a crucial skill for developing scratch recipes at a scale that accurately credits toward the USDA meal patterns and that staff at different sites can consistently make and serve successfully.

  • The “meat and meat alternate” cooking lab focused on using raw animal proteins and plant-based proteins to make delicious dishes with flavors from all over the world.

  • Foundations of training excellence was a train-the-trainer session that equipped the Fellows with the knowledge and tools to be better trainers and share what they learned with the staff in their own districts.

Connecting in the Kitchen

Everyone was particularly excited about the chance to cook together in the half-day, hands-on cooking lab in CICN’s training kitchen. Chefs Patrick and Garrett provided introductions to the recipes and divided the Fellows into small groups to tackle three recipes each. After developing prep lists for the recipes, the Fellows donned their chef coats, aprons, hats, and hairnets and got to work in the kitchen.

While the Fellows come from varying levels of culinary expertise, they worked together effortlessly in the kitchen. They swapped tips, discussed the pros and cons of different types of equipment, and cleaned the kitchen in record time once they finished cooking. Then it was time to taste!

Dishes ranged from turkey breakfast sausage to Cuban black beans to Korean beef to cheesy lentil bake. As everyone enjoyed the delicious protein-packed feast, each group shared the fun, kid-friendly names they had come up with for their recipes (that cheesy lentil bake became Plant-Powered Pizza Lentils), how easy or difficult the recipes were to prepare, and any tweaks they would make to the recipes or preparation methods in their own districts.

Tools for Scratch Cooking Success

The Fellows headed home from CICN energized by the training and excited to bring that energy and their learnings back to their teams. One thing that many of them were struck by after this training was the wealth of resources available from CICN, including printed resources to hang in their kitchens and dozens of free training videos. If you work in or with a K-12 district, CICN and The Lunch Box are great resources to check out and use to support scratch cooking in your district.


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