What’s on the Tray for 2020

Mara Fleishman, Chef Ann Foundation CEO, reveals what she’s most excited about this year

  • CAF Programs
  • January 24, 2020
  • By: Mara Fleishman
  • Comments

Editor’s Note: Given the USDA school nutrition rollbacks announced on January 17, 2020, the Chef Ann Foundation believes it is more imperative than ever that we continue working with districts nationwide to improve their school food programs. You can view our statement on the subject here.

2019 was a big year for me personally; my oldest kid headed off to college for her freshman year, my middle got her driver’s license, and my youngest started calling his friends “dudes.” I celebrated my 50th birthday, the Chef Ann Foundation’s 10 year anniversary, and my 7th year leading the organization. 

For those of you who haven’t reached the 50-year mark yet, it’s a really interesting experience. Birthdays have never bothered me; working full-time and having three kids gives me plenty to fill my time. For me, it was never about getting older—just about what was next. The thing about 50 is that you can remember when your parents turned 50, and you can remember thinking they were old. 

Well, after having a momentary panic at that thought, I decided I was going to celebrate the crap out of 50. I did four things that had been on my bucket list. I took a hiking trip through the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain. I asked my husband to throw me a Clam Bake (growing up in Massachusetts and now living in Colorado, I really wanted to have a traditional Clam Bake with all my CO friends). I went to Nashville, TN with my high school friends and really soaked up the culture. And finally, I did a cross country ski trip, staying in yurts in the Tennessee Pass in CO. After all that, I can say I feel more like 25 than 50, and I’m ready to continue tackling my bucket list year after year.

This brings us to the work of the Chef Ann Foundation (CAF). I am not good at “slow speed” (never really have been), but I had to learn to be because school food reform just doesn’t happen overnight. I realized this year how grateful I am for Ann Cooper, who has always approached this work from a systems perspective. My first 3 years at the organization, I felt I was listening, learning and, frankly, making mistakes. There is so much to know about school food operations, especially the systems you need to create change: community, government, agriculture, manufacturing, health, food service, education, career development—the list goes on.

I can honestly say that 2019 was my most favorite year at CAF. While I didn’t stop learning, I could take breaks to synthesize what I was learning into more effective strategy development. Together, Ann, the team and I were able to really drill down and think about the most critical needs in school food and build our approaches. Below are some of the ones that I am particularly excited about, which have been bucket list items for this organization since 2009. 2020 is going to be an exciting year.

The Lunch Box: Newly Updated & Improved

Thanks to our wonderful partners at the Colorado Health Foundation, we have been able to take the last year to assess The Lunch Box and determine what the needs will be for the next five years for cook-from-scratch school food operations. In the spring of 2020, we will launch the next iteration of The Lunch Box, and I am particularly excited about some of the new content coming your way: 

  • Central Kitchens - what you need to know about planning and building central kitchens
  • Sustainable Lunchrooms - practical and tested approaches to reduce waste and increase sustainability in both the front and back of the house
  • Cooperative Buying Groups – how to build and run a co-op group, assess and optimize, and best practices for operations

District Self Assessments

The cornerstone of our more comprehensive work is the district onsite assessments in our Get Schools Cooking program. This is a massive undertaking with experts onsite for 5-30 days assessing the five key areas of a streamlined, coherent cook-from-scratch program: food, finance, facilities, human resources, and marketing. 

Cooking from scratch is a continuum—not an “all or nothing” approach. We want to help school districts assess their current position, and outline the next steps in the continuum toward positive change. We hope to start work on this assessment platform in June of 2020 and launch during by the winter of 2021 to start giving districts the opportunity for yearly self-assessments and mark their improvements.

Get Schools Cooking Data

We have always known instinctively that cooking from scratch using whole, fresh ingredients is better for children and the planet. As a chef and activist, it is what drove Chef Ann to move her talents into school food and start this organization. After 10 years of pushing back on the system and supporting those that have wanted to create change, we now know it’s time to research and document the outcomes of moving to a cook-from-scratch program. 

We are rolling back our sleeves and making sure that skeptics have the formal research they need to understand the impact a cook-from-scratch program can have. We are thankful to our partners at the Gretchen Swanson Center for Nutrition, who have been doing credible national evaluation on food programing for years. We’re excited to see their first evaluation document come out in early 2020 focused on our first Get Schools Cooking cohort from 2016.

Fellowship Program

It’s now the start of my 8th year leading CAF. I love my job and the work we do, though it has been a learning process for me. It’s taken some time to really understand school food operations, what the restraints are, the opportunities, and the systems that need to work together for real improvement. I have been so lucky to work side-by-side with Chef Ann for the last 7 years and learn from her, along with other seasoned school food leaders. 

As more and more people look to transition to a cook-from-scratch program, we need operators that can help districts create the change. People have to see success in the field (and in different district types) to understand how to take on the integrated components of a successful scratch-cook program. That is why we have been working on a CAF fellowship program. We are digging in throughout 2020 to create the structure, learning opportunities, and requirements for a successful fellowship program that will produce experienced school food professionals capable of managing and training others on how to run a successful cook-from-scratch program. 

Our Advisory Board

An advisory board is so important for the work we do. Having a supportive group of school food professionals that are committed—not only to the change they are trying to make in their districts, but to pay that change forward—is critical. I am so proud to have these amazing professionals on our Advisory Board: Sunny Young Baker, Betty T. Izumi, Jenny Montague, Adam Russo, Spencer Taylor, Matt Poling, Janice King, Jessica Shelly, Bertrand Weber, Miguel Villarreal, Rob Jaber, and David Husbands.

Our Impact

Every year, we try and meet the needs of our stakeholders. We never want to grow just to grow; we are determined to stay connected to school food professionals and constantly look for ways to support moving their school food program forward on the continuum of scratch cooking. Based on the needs of our stakeholders, the capacity of our team, and the mission of our organization, we have the following major impact goals:

  • Grant out 250 salad bars
  • Support 5 districts in the 4th cohort of the Get Schools Cooking Program
  • Teach 600 School Food Institute courses
  • Support school food professionals in downloading 20,000 resources on The Lunch Box
  • Register 3,350 new registered users on The Lunch Box
  • Increase our impact from 11,832 schools at the end of 2019 to 13,000 schools at the end of 2020
  • Increase our impact in reaching 3,227,009 kids through our programming at the end of 2019 to 3,500,000 at the end of 2020.

It’s time to dig in. Cheers to an exceptional 2020!

Mara Fleishman

CEO Chef Ann Foundation

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