Back to School

School district, faced with rising food prices and tight nutrition standards, are beginning to call on commercial chefs to help them develop recipes and menus that will satisfy both their customers' desires and their districts' bottom lines. FSD examines four districts where chefs have done "back to school."

Faced with rising prices and strict nutritional standards, school nutrition programs often don’t have much time to devote to menu development. Some directors, however, are looking for help from outside the school environment by turning to chefs from established local restaurants to reinvigorate school cafeterias. Here, we highlight four of the districts in which chefs have gone “back to school.”

Saint Paul Public Schools
When Jean Ronnei, director of nutrition and commercial services for the 40,000-student Saint Paul (Minn.) Public Schools, wanted to make some changes to her menu to reduce sodium and increase the use of raw ingredients, she went to Chef Seth Bixby Daugherty for help. Bixby Daugherty had recently left his job as executive chef at Cosmos, an upscale restaurant in Minneapolis, to fight childhood obesity by working with school districts to improve their menus and programs.

“I went to have lunch with my son at his school two years ago, and he decided that he was going to drink three chocolate milks that day,” Bixby Daugherty says. “I went, ‘Wait a minute. What is going on here?’” Bixby Daugherty decided to focus his energy on improving school foodservice. (It would take him the next year and a half to get out of his contract with Cosmos.) Along with his wife, Karen, he formed Real Food Initiatives, a program in which he volunteers his time and expertise in the name of healthier and better food for students. (Bixby Daugherty also teaches at a local culinary school.) His first district partnership was Saint Paul Public Schools.

Bixby Daugherty and Ronnei met on a local radio program, where they were guests speaking about school nutrition. “I asked him during the radio interview if he knew how much money we had to work with,” Ronnei says. “When I told him, he said, ‘That’s criminal,’ and that sparked my interest in working with him.”

Six months later, Bixby Daugherty was working in the district’s kitchen to reduce the amount of sodium in the lasagna recipe, among other items. In his work, Bixby Daugherty sat down with the district’s quality control specialist and chef. In the lasagna recipe, he reduced the sodium by more than half and eliminated all the brown sugar, while adding additional fresh herbs, spices and vegetables. The result was a healthier lasagna entrée that Ronnei says the students loved.

But not all the tweaked recipes have gone over well with students, she adds. For example, Bixby Daugherty also worked on a spaghetti sauce that students were not as happy with. “We found that we had to make the carrots ‘disappear,’” Ronnei says. Once the carrots were shredded instead of diced, the sauce became a success in the students’ eyes. 

“It was really fun to have someone with a different frame of reference work with your staff,” Ronnei says. “You get somebody ruminating in your kitchen and you think, I wonder if we could do this or that. So it gives you ideas you could do on your own without an outside chef. That cross-pollination of ideas is very helpful.”

For his part, Bixby Daugherty says: “I am not a nutritionist; I’m not a specialist but I know what we are doing now is not working. Real Food Initiatives just evolves organically. I don’t have a one-year plan, two-week plan or one-day plan.” However, what he lacks in planning, Bixby Daugherty makes up for in his passion, which was showcased recently on an episode of the Rachel Ray show. After that appearance, Bixby Daugherty says he had requests from 135 school districts hoping to tap into his expertise and free labor. Next year, he plans to work with three districts, including the 3,200-student Sartell-St. Stephen District.

Sartell-St. Stephen School District
When Bixby Daugherty started his work with the Sartell-St. Stephen School District, he used the lessons learned from working with Ronnei and St. Paul. This time, however, he was asked by the district’s foodservice director, Brenda Braulick, to create new recipes instead of tweaking existing ones. Bixby Daugherty knew to accomplish this he first needed to speak with students to find out what it was they were looking for in their lunches. “I requested to speak with the student council because they are the guests, the customers and the ones who are eating the foods,” he says. “I find out what they like and don’t, and then we go back into the kitchens and try to develop recipes based on the ideas that come from the student council.” What he learned was that the students were asking for more ethnic dishes and salads as entrées.

Before Bixby Daugherty starts creating recipes, he tours the kitchen to find out what equipment he has to work with. Daugherty recognizes that schools often have varied pieces of equipment and little-to-no money for purchasing new equipment.

After completing research at Sartell-St. Stephen, Bixby Daugherty and the kitchen staff worked on new recipes to meet the desires of the students. Some new items developed were a wild rice soup, a hot pasta primavera salad and a number of ethnic wraps, including Greek and Mexican. Braulick also asked him to tackle Tater Tots, a popular item with students but not the most nutritious item. Bixby Daugherty’s solution was a rosemary roasted potato side dish, which Braulick says students were willing to try because they knew it was a Chef Seth’s recipe. She says that because Bixby Daugherty interacted with students and was so enthusiastic, the students were more willing to try new products. Braulick says student and parent buy-in was important, adding that publicizing the partnership in local media and school newsletters was valuable in that process. To market the items created by Bixby Daugherty, she puts a Chef Seth Recipe logo next to his items on the menus. She says when students see the logo, they tend to purchase those items.

For Braulick, the chance to work with a chef like Bixby Daugherty was extremely valuable, especially in today’s economy. “As a foodservice director, we are juggling so many hats right now with rising prices and labor costs,” she says. “We are stressed just to make ends meet and we don’t always have time to devote to recipe development.”

Another benefit of working with a professionally trained chef like Bixby Daugherty is the training he provides to the district’s staff. “I have students who work in the kitchens for class credit and it is exciting for them to see career options and have that exposure with a chef,” Braulick says.

One of the goals Bixby Daugherty has for Real Food Initiatives is to make everything available for free on his Web site, realfoodinitiatives.com. His goal is to showcase the recipes he has created for a school district and the equipment that district has available so that other districts can take what he had learned and implement that in their programs.

Atlanta Public Schools
In Atlanta Public Schools, local chef and television personality Marvin Woods is taking on children’s health issues with his program, “Droppin’ Knowledge with Chef Marvin Woods.” The program focuses on four components—line presentation, batch cooking, customer service and recipe compliance—to enhance dining for the nearly 50,000 students in the district. 

With a desire to make a change in the way kids eat, Woods started the program in 2006 by asking Superintendent Beverly Hall if he could do research on the way kids ate and thought about food. Hall agreed and Woods started his research. In 2007, he partnered with Sodexo, which holds the district’s foodservice contract. The first step was to talk to the students about their eating habits and what they wanted to see in the school cafeterias. “Marvin found that the students had a real curiosity about food and that they were much more willing to try new and different things than many of us had thought,” says Scott Loretan, senior vice president for Sodexo’s School Services and liaison between Sodexo and Woods.

Although some child nutrition experts say working with younger students is easier, Woods’ focus is on high school students. “Marvin said we can’t give up on these kids because they haven’t given up on themselves,” Loretan says. “If you look at school nutrition programs, by and large, the greatest participation challenge in getting kids to eat is in those high schools. That is where we really need people like Marvin to come in and talk to these kids to tailor programs that better meet their needs.” Participation in the district’s high schools increased 25% during the 2007-2008 school year and, according to Loretan, the work Woods has done in the schools has been a major factor in that increase.

Interestingly, changing the menu wasn’t the next step for Woods after the market research was completed. Instead, he spent the better part of the school year training, in what Woods’s business partner Chadwick Boyd calls their own version of culinary school. During the training component of the program, Woods goes into each school and helps prepare each day’s menu with the staff. Along the way, he shows them new culinary techniques and skills to improve the quality and presentation of the food served. He then interacts with students during lunch by helping to serve the food.

Loretan says the biggest takeaway from the partnership has been the students’ desires for new foods. “These kids don’t want to eat a slice of pizza every day for lunch,” he explains. “They are looking for variety. What was exotic a few years ago, with Mexican and Chinese cuisines, is now the expectation.” 

The publicity generated by the partnership with the locally well-known chef has also been an advantage. “The press will show up and do a story on a Chef Marvin Woods in a school, whereas they won’t often show up and do a story just on what’s happening in your school lunch program,” Loretan says. He adds that having an outside opinion has been a valuable asset. “People like Chef Marvin come in and they are not burdened with the processes, the systems, the regulations and the cost constraints of school nutrition programs. They come in and they challenge the status quo and ask, why not? And they really force you to try and think differently about the way you serve and what you serve to children.”

Scottsdale Unified School District
Not all school districts bring in chefs to revamp the entire foodservice program; some just want a little help to get a new idea off the ground. When Sue Bettenhausen, foodservice director for the 25,700-student Scottsdale (Ariz.) Unified School District, wrote a letter to parents telling them about her desire to create a snack cart in the cafeterias, many parents opposed the idea because they thought it was going to sell “junk food.” One parent, however, asked Bettenhausen if he could help. The parent was well-known local chef  Eddie Matney. The two paired up and created Chef Eddie’s Snack Wagon, a Western-themed cart that offers healthy à la carte snacks such as fresh fruit on a stick, hummus with pita chips and pinwheel sandwiches on a stick.

Bettenhausen wanted an option like the cart to help ease long lines, as well as to provide an alternative for students. “We have parents who don’t want their kids eating baked chips every day,” she says. “We have parents who want their kids to eat fresh fruit or all natural foods. The cart gives that option and it helps us diversify our menus.”

To begin, they asked students what they wanted. “Kids are very educated about better food,” Matney says. “They have parents who take them to restaurants and they see what is available.” So Matney and Bettenhausen held a food forum with fourth and fifth graders, who asked for things like salads and fruit with yogurt. Then they piloted Chef Eddie’s Snack Wagon in one elementary school this past May. According to Bettenhausen, sales for à la carte snacks tripled on the first day and have shown no signs of slowing down. She plans on opening four additional carts. “We spend a lot of time with Eddie and he came up with a lot of ideas for us,” Bettenhausen says. “But then we had to sit down and say, ‘Eddie, we have to make some changes like reducing sodium or the portion size to fit with nutrition standards.”

It wasn’t just the menu development aspect that Bettenhausen found useful for the department. “You can’t underestimate the value of planning, marketing and getting buy-in on these things,” she says. “And a chef like Eddie can get your kids excited and  get them to participate. They can be marvelous marketing tools.”

But the collaboration didn’t benefit only the schools. When Matney opened his new restaurant Eddie’s House, one item on the menu was meatloaf on a stick, an item similar to one found on the snack cart in the school. “The synergy that occurs when four or five food people get together is just extremely beneficial for kids,” Bettenhausen says.