Thanking the Humble Hands of School Food Service

Creativity and Collaboration in School Kitchens Across the Country

  • Hero Stories
  • November 21, 2017
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Across the country, a committed team of school nutrition staff shows up in school kitchens to feed over 30 million students. Behind the scenes, team members plan menus and unload inventories. Their humble hands wash, chop, peel, mix, toss, and cook their way to providing healthy and nutritious food. They serve with a smile that marks the satisfaction of knowing they are fueling our future generation.

This task is not easy. Students have preferences that challenge school food service teams to craft healthy and appetizing meals that also meet nutritional standards and fall within program budgets. To help these teams and their school communities serve healthier foods and redefine lunchroom environments, Chef Ann Foundation provides tools, resources, and funds. To date, we’ve supported over 9,000 schools and 2.9 million children.

This Thanksgiving, let’s take a moment to be grateful for all the committed teams of school nutrition staff around the country who meet the challenges of preparing freshly made, whole foods to their students. To show you just how hard they work, we’ve compiled an all-star ensemble of school districts who are leading the way in school food reform through creative and collaborative approaches to change. Hop on, we’re on a school food tour around the nation!

First stop: Georgia. In Buford, just northeast of Atlanta, Director Megan Gower leads the Child Nutrition Department for Buford City Schools (BCS). Director Gower and her team feed 3,800 students, of which 37% are eligible for free and reduced priced meals. Director Gower planned a sequence of smaller changes throughout the 2016-2017 school year to make the big change to healthier and scratch-made food easier for students. 

First, the BCS team removed the bad: no more packaged a la carte breakfast options, no more strawberry or vanilla flavored milk, and fewer products with high fructose corn syrup and artificial flavors. Then they flooded the food lines with delicious, freshly made foods, such as scratch-made Cheesy Lasagna and French Toast Casserole. Continuing with small changes that make a big impact, Director Gower will be placing salad bars in schools across the district so that students have even more access to healthy, fresh, whole foods. We applaud Director Gower’s strategy of sequencing changes to provide healthier foods at a healthy pace for students. Thank you, Director Gower and your dedicated team!

RSU 14’s Baked Halibut, fresh baked roll, and roasted potatoes

For our next all-star stop, we head up the coast to southern Maine, where Windham Raymond RSU #14 School Nutrition Program (RSU 14) serves 3,300 students in 6 schools. Lead by the strong vision of Director Jeanne Reilly and Chef Samantha Gasbarro, the district brings a big creativity game to promoting their meals and encouraging students to enjoy what they eat in school.

Cooking clubs, taste tests, and garden education top the list of key strategies used throughout the district to make sure that the school meals appeal to all students and get them thinking about what they eat and where it comes from. On “Try it Tuesdays,” students try new dishes and get to provide feedback to Chef Gasbarro. Some of the dishes students recently weighed in on include fresh fennel, quick pickles, and bahn mi sandwiches.

RSU 14 also recently doubled their breakfast participation with Fun Friday Breakfasts that feature yogurt parfaits, smoothies, and granola with themes like Super Bowl Friday, Teddy Bear Picnic, and Angry Bird Breakfast. Get inspired by and feel thankful for creative school lunch leaders like RSU 14 by following them on Facebook. Thank you, RSU 14 School Nutrition Program!

A very short ride later, our next stop is in New Hampshire. Oyster River Cooperative School District (ORCSD) serves 2,150 students in Durham with the help of an exceptional Director and a winning collaboration. Director Doris Demers and the ORCSD partnered with the University of New Hampshire (UNH) to procure fresh produce from the Thompson school’s greenhouse. UNH contributes microgreens, tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, romaine, and kale to ORCSD school meals. Director Demers sometimes even drives the van herself to ensure students receive daily fresh and local produce options from their salad bars. She also does the extra work required to procure as many local ingredients as possible, including meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables. Chef Ann Foundation applauds the commitment Director Demers demonstrates, and we can all be grateful for her exemplary leadership. Thank you to the ORCSD team for being school food all-stars!

And now let’s hop on a plane and fly over Great Lakes to Boyne Falls Public Schools (BFPS) in Northern Michigan, where School Nutrition Director and Chef Nathan Bates serves 200 K-12 students. 60% of BFPS students are eligible for free or reduced cost school meals. Chef Bates demonstrates a deep commitment to procuring locally and cooking meals from scratch by adopting an “If they grow it, they will eat it,” philosophy.

BFPS students grow lettuce, tomatoes, and cabbage in the district hoop house, where they engage in experiential learning through composting, maintaining soil health, and observing the plant life cycle from seed to harvest. Chef Bates crafts delicious meals with their harvests. Like Director Demers at our last stop in NH, Chef Bates also goes above and beyond to procure as many local and organic ingredients as possible. He sources produce from farmers who deliver directly to the back door of the school kitchen!

Dishes from Chef Bates include student favorites Beef Stew with Homemade Focaccia Bread and Pork Carnitas with Chimichurri and Spanish Rice, both of which are exemplary meals for expanding tastes and encouraging a lifetime of healthy food choices. Chef Ann Foundation is grateful for school food leaders like Chef Bates of BFPS. Thank you, Chef Bates and the BFPS students who grow what they eat!

Taking to the skies one last time, we head west to Oxnard, California, where Ocean View School District (OVSD) keeps scratch-cooked food in the forefront as they prepare food for 2,700 students in four schools in a district with 79% free and reduced eligibility. Director Pamela Lee and her team began transitioning from heat and serve to freshly prepared foods in 2014 when Director Lee joined OVSD.

Director Lee set a goal to provide four scratch-made meals per week for OVSD students. So far, students are pleased, especially with the posole, a traditional Mexican stew made with hominy, pork or chicken, chilli peppers, and salsa. Students and staff also enjoy the freshly stocked salad bar every day. To get everyone excited about the salad bar, Director Lee took a very creative and collaborative approach: she enlisted the help of Food Corps and the Junior High Journalism Class to develop promotional materials, made for students, by students. Check out their short October Harvest of the Month promo video and you will want the yummy salads too.

And now we end by bringing our journey home to Colorado, where we send a big thank you to one of the nation’s leaders in school food reform: Chef Ann Cooper, Director of Food Services at Boulder Valley School District (BVSD). Chef Ann pushes the boundaries of what school food can and should be. Meals at BVSD feature organic white milk, daily salad bars, and scratch cooked entrees such as Greek Empanadas, Spanikopita Toasted Cheese Sandwich, and Chicken Street Tacos. As founder and President of the board at the Chef Ann Foundation, Chef Ann works tirelessly to share her knowledge and operational expertise with colleagues in other districts. Thank you, Chef Ann! 

That concludes our all-star tour around the country to take a look at the dedicated teams who are shaping children’s palates towards healthier food choices for the rest of their lives.

Chef Ann Foundation understands the challenges to transitioning food operations from heat and serve to freshly prepared meals. We are grateful to all schools who have met this challenge and we are extra grateful for the all-stars who go above and beyond in their commitment to procuring local foods, encouraging healthier choices, increasing food literacy, and ensuring that every child has access to fresh, healthy food, every day. Without these leading schools, other schools might doubt that change can happen. It can, and it is! 

Photos courtesy of Windham Raymond RSU #14 and Oyster River Cooperative School District. 

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