Fresh Starts

Published in FSD K-12 Spotlight

Tasty roasted veggies, culinary skills training and produce sampling are in play as child nutrition pros tackle the new USDA meal regulations.

Roasting, a cooking method that yields flavorful vegetables, is on the rise in some school districts.

For example, at Hillsborough County Public Schools, in Tampa, Fla., roasting has helped introduce healthier vegetable preparations to students well before the launch of the new USDA K-12 meal regulations.

“We have done a lot with roasting mixed vegetables and broccoli and cauliflower,” says Mary Kate Harrison, general manager, food and child nutrition services. “Cauliflower has been really popular. Roasting really makes it quite good.”

Hillsborough County students have also taken to Harvest Macaroni and Cheese, a dish that features a nutritious duo of roasted butternut squash and whole-grain elbow macaroni. 

Roasted veggies are regularly enjoyed in the cafeterias of Burlington School District, in Vermont, reports Doug Davis, foodservice director.

One of the favorite menu items is Roasted Roots, a medley of oven-roasted root vegetables such as red potatoes, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots and onions. In the fall, locally grown beets, parsnips and celeriac join the mix. 

“Kids just love them,” Davis says. “They have been eating them in place of french fries for at least five years. They take longer to prep and cook than french fries, and some schools don’t have the oven capacity to produce the amount they would need during the meal period.” 

Prep time

Burlington workers handle the large workload of fresh vegetable prep with continuous-feed food processors. “There are days when people just prep vegetables,” Davis says. 

Davis also notes that his menus include some high-quality processed chicken, burger, beef taco and meatball products that save labor and allow the staff more time to prep root vegetables and salad bar items.
Furthermore, kale has also been a success story in Burlington. 

“Right now our kids eat more kale than I ever would have imagined possible—kale chips, kale chopped in a salad and actually cooked kale,” Davis says. “And cooked kale in the Northeast is sort of unique.” 

Flexibility with formats

At Hillsborough County Public Schools, Harrison sometimes supplements fresh vegetables with high-quality frozen ones. “You can always find good corn that is frozen,” Harrison says. “We are using a local corn cobette that is new this year. We have also done good things adding frozen, cubed butternut squash to some dishes. Also, you can make a great spinach soufflé with frozen spinach. But we prefer fresh green beans and fresh broccoli, although when the price goes up, we just can’t menu them anymore.”

Similarly, at Bristol Tennessee City Schools, cost is leading Director of School Nutrition Ron Fink to use more frozen vegetables and less fresh.

“The students are asking me to hook up with the local farmers, but I’m kind of going the other way,” Fink says. “I’m embracing corporate frozen vegetables this fall to save money. We’ve found some really upscale frozen vegetables that nutritionally are pretty darn good, especially if you are picky about what you buy, although personally I think fresh is better.” 

“We’ve moved away somewhat from fresh fruits and went back to canned, so we are about 50-50 canned versus fresh,” Fink adds. “Before, we were about 90% fresh.” 

Get on the training

In some school districts, the larger amount of fresh fruit and vegetables now in use, and the desire to do more scratch cooking, is leading directors to seek more culinary training for staff.

Fink has been proactive about increasing staff training for school foodservice workers, both in his own schools and in other Tennessee districts. He teamed with local chefs to conduct a week-long Culinary Academy training program sponsored by the state nutrition association. The initial program, attended by 20 school foodservice workers, covered essential knowledge and skills such as using a knife, cooking methods, and spices and herbs. 

“You can still get through the USDA regs with cans and boxes,” Fink says. “But if you really want to push beyond that, and actually cook soups from scratch and make fresh salads and entrées, it really takes some skill and knowledge.” 

Attendees of the Culinary Academy had to complete an application to take part. “They were the people who really, really wanted to be there, the people who are leaders and have a real interest in doing better,” Fink says. After the training, the participants went back to their  own school districts to train their fellow workers so the knowledge and skills would spread.

Wide-ranging culinary training is offered in the Hillsborough County district as well. “We do staff training for all new food items,” Harrison says. “We have a full-time executive chef who runs ongoing culinary classes. All of our managers and production coordinators are required to go through those classes. We have taught knife skills, how to roast vegetables, how to make a spinach soufflé, including how to thaw and squeeze out all the moisture if you are using frozen spinach.”

Every week Hillsborough County’s executive chef compiles Chef Notes about current recipes on the menu, especially the new items, as a reference for staff. “The Chef Notes might say that roasted vegetables are done when they are brown around the edges and look roasted rather than steamed,” Harrison says. “We also test the chef’s recipes with kids and our foodservice staff, just as we would if a vendor came in with a product.”

Raising the salad bar

Throughout the K-12 segment, salad bars are bringing healthier fare to students. A new wrinkle for Hillsborough County high schools was the introduction of made-to-order salad bars at the start of last school year. Kids enjoy choosing various greens, toppings and dressings from a colorful assortment of items on the serving line, which are custom assembled for them by staff. 

“The salads were extremely popular and certainly added to our 5% increase in participation in high schools,” Harrison says. 

Later in the year, the district implemented made-to-order sandwich bars with a variety of fillings and garnishes and a similar service method, also with positive results.

In 2009, Aramark launched a concept called Cool*Caf, a dining environment featuring an extensive fruit and vegetable bar, express service lines, and hot and cold grab-and-go sack lunches. The program is now in about 750 schools around the country. Where Cool*Caf has been used, it has helped increase fruit and vegetable consumption, speed of service and meal participation, according to Karen Cutler, director of communications for the Philadelphia-based contract management company. 

Whole-grain gains

Whole grains are on the rise in the K-12 schools that contract with Metz Culinary Management, a contract management company based in Dallas, Pa. 

“We have definitely tweaked our recipes, and grains are a huge factor,” says Frieda Aughenbaugh, nutrition educator for Metz. The company started working with vendors on improved whole-grain products in 2011. “By last school year, almost all of our bread, rolls and buns were whole grain,” Aughenbaugh says. She estimates that in most schools three-quarters of the breads offered are now whole grain. 

Most of the pizza dough used in Metz accounts is scratch made. “We worked with whole-grain pizza dough and that was a huge undertaking,” Aughenbaugh says. “We had taste testing with students to see which products would be most acceptable.” 

However, with whole-grain pasta, operators had their struggles in gaining student acceptance.

“Our employees are still getting used to cooking whole-grain pasta,” Hillsborough County’s Harrison says. “We have done all sorts of culinary classes on cooking it and flavoring it. But some customers don’t care for the color of it. We have switched brands of whole-grain pasta several times to find products that look nice and kids like.” 

Whole-grain pasta “has been kind of a challenge for us, too,” Aughenbaugh admits. “But we still have another year to prepare them for that.” She is referring to the stricter rule starting in the 2014-2015 school year that will require 100% of grain foods served to be whole grain-rich or made with at least 50% whole grain.

True colors

In some districts, green, leafy salads were the norm even before the new regulations came.

At Ponca City School District, in Oklahoma, kids have been enjoying salads made with romaine and spinach for more than a decade, explains Foodservice Director Jeff Denton. “It would be an issue now if we started serving iceberg lettuce, because they would think there is something wrong with it because it so pale compared to what we normally use.” 

Similarly, Burlington schools have been serving baby spinach, romaine and baby mesclun mix on the salad bar for about five years with high acceptance, Davis reports. “With our green leafy vegetables there was no learning curve,” Davis says. “We simply had them available every day.” 

Denton makes good use of sliced, grape and cherry tomatoes at Ponica City School District to meet requirements for red and orange vegetables. “They are easy to serve,” he says. “And you can go a day over. I wouldn’t use green beans the next day, but I would use a cherry tomato the next day. That gave me the flexibility to offer them more than once a week.” 

Sweet potatoes, in the form of tots, coins, fries, simply roasted and cooked in casseroles, have become Ponca City staples. “I put sweet potatoes in front of them in as many ways as I can,” Denton says.

At Dallas Independent School District, students are eating more broccoli than before, especially when it is served with a sweeter sauce, according to Dora Rivas, executive director of food and child nutrition services. But trials of dark green vegetables like kale and mustard greens have not been as successful. 

Trial and success

On the whole, operators agree that encouraging kids to try fruits and vegetables that are new to them pays off in time. 

“Through our sampling program and the efforts of our managers to encourage students to try new foods, we have seen an anecdotal increase in the number of students trying new fruits and vegetables,” says Linda Sceurman, director of nutrition and menu development for Aramark Education. 

“When students make a connection between something they grow in the garden and what we are serving, they are more likely to eat it,” Dallas Independent School District’s Rivas says. “So when acorn and hubbard squash are ready in the school gardens, we will bring them into the serving line.”