Timothy Cipriano: Taking the Lead

Timothy Cipriano, executive director of food services for 20,800-student New Haven (Conn.) Public Schools, is acutely aware of the nutritional problems facing his students. The district has an 80% free and reduced percentage, and according to Feeding America, a national network of food banks, one in six children in Connecticut doesn’t have enough to eat. So Cipriano has made it his goal to make sure the meals his students eat at school are as nutritious as possible.

Rebranding a program: Cipriano was brought to New Haven in July 2008 to transition the district’s foodservice program from contract management to self-operated.

“We were not satisfied with the way the foodservice was going, both from the health and wellness side of things and the financial control and vision of the department,” says Will Clark, COO for New Haven schools.

Clark says after receiving bids from other management firms, he realized the right direction was to make the program self-operated. Clark says after speaking with other Connecticut districts and school nutrition professionals, Cipriano’s name kept coming up as the person who could lead the district on its new path.

“I met with Tim when he was at Bloomfield [Public School District in Connecticut] and told him he could do all the things he was doing there at New Haven but on a macro level,” Clark says. “On the one hand we have hunger issues and on the other we have an obesity epidemic. We believe there is a connection between health, wellness and food and the classroom. Tim was on board after that conversation.”

Both Cipriano and Clark knew changing the foodservice program would not be easy. “I said I really don’t know what to expect, but we are going to make the food better and we are going to take baby steps to get there,” Cipriano says. “We don’t want to change the whole system, flip it upside down and confuse the kids.”

FoodService Director - FSD month - Timothy Cipriano - New Haven SchoolsOne of Cipriano’s first moves was switching all bread products to whole grain. Overall, Cipriano says the change went well. However, one item, a whole-grain kaiser roll, was not well received. “The kaiser roll was the only item that we switched back to a white product. The kids did not like it. You can’t change everything. I wouldn’t call it a setback; it was an understanding.”

Cipriano knows that he can’t change kids’ eating patterns overnight. “We don’t want to take the approach of, ‘this is what we are serving and you are going to eat it,’” he says. “Kids love hot dogs, so we switched our hot dogs to turkey hot dogs. We didn’t want to go crazy and eliminate everything. We wanted to make small changes.”

Many of those small changes have come from making modifications at the department’s central kitchen. Mashed potatoes and roasted potatoes are now made from fresh produce instead of canned products. The majority of the beans are now fresh. Stir-fry vegetables are cut by hand.

Cipriano says he’s trying to get back to “real food,” so he’s cutting out as much processed food as he can. Last school year, Cipriano took on chicken nuggets. The kid favorite, along with chicken patties, was eliminated from the menus. Eight-cut chicken is now purchased, which is roasted and served with fresh vegetables.

“We want real food,” Cipriano says about eliminating chicken nuggets. “You can’t go to the butcher shop and say, ‘I want chicken stars and chicken moons.’ You can’t buy a porterhouse steak that’s been stamped with a cookie cutter that looks like a snowman. That’s what we’re trying to teach kids. That’s not what food is. That’s marketing.”

Healthy on a budget: In April 2008, à la carte snacks were eliminated from all K-8 schools. Snacks were eliminated at the secondary schools this September. “All our K-8 schools and some of our larger high schools are Provision II, so the kids get free breakfast and lunch,” Cipriano says. “We’re not a convenience store. We need to focus on what we do best and that’s school meals.”

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