TIM PROSINSKI has energized the child nutrition department at BERLIN PUBLIC SCHOOLS by:
• STARTING Chef Tim Days, during which Prosinski does display cooking in the cafeteria and answers students' questions
• BEGINNING an after-school cooking club at the middle school
• MENTORING students who have culinary aspirations and letting those students shadwo him in the cafeteria
• MAKING small changes toward more healthful eating, such as using more fresh fruit and vegetables and doing more home-style cooking to entice students to try different items
Tim Prosinski, Berlin Public SchoolsTim Prosinski, foodservice director/chef at 3,200-student Berlin Public Schools in Connecticut, doesn’t know how to sit back and accept the status quo. In his five years at the district, he’s created an after-school cooking club, mentored students with an interest in foodservice and started Chef Tim Days, during which he cooks on the serving line. Prosinski knows that building relationships with the students he serves is the first step in getting them to eat healthier.
“Tim really has a genuine interest in the welfare of the children in the district,” says Roman Czuchta, director of business operations. “He is constantly doing things that involve the students with a goal of really introducing them to good foods, teaching them how to prepare foods and leading them into a healthy lifestyle.
“Tim was being interviewed on a local TV station,” Czuchta adds. “He brought some kids he was mentoring on the show with him. The kids were being interviewed and you could see they had a genuine interest in what was going on. You could see that they understood the process and you could see that Tim had taken them in and brought them into the foodservice program and developed a bond with them.”
Front and center: One way in which Prosinski develops that bond with his students is Chef Tim Days. For Chef Tim Days, Prosinski dons a chef’s coat and cooks on the serving line.
“If you bring someone into a school in a uniform like a fireman or policeman, the kids get really excited,” Prosinski says. “If there is someone in a chef’s jacket making the kids lunches, they get really excited.”
Chef Tim Days started at the high school. Following the positive reception, the program has moved to the district’s other four schools.
“It’s kind of an action station that you see at other foodservice establishments,” Prosinski says. “Obviously, I can’t do an individual sauté pan for every child, but I can do several different kinds of pastas or stir-fries at one time. As the students come in, they have to come by my station, and I’m there throwing the pasta or stir-fry with fresh garlic and olive oil.”
Prosinski says Chef Tim Days are not just about creating excitement in the cafeterias; they also allow him to interact with the students. While the students are waiting in line to be served their food, Prosinski encourages the kids to ask questions about what he’s cooking and healthy eating.
“Kids nowadays are a little more into food,” Prosinski says. “They eat out more and watch the Food Network. While they are eating, I can go around the room and talk with them about what they think. They will be honest with you. Some of the kids will say they like it and you keep an eye on them to see if they go back for more. If they do then you know that dish worked.”
Mentoring: Last year at the middle school Prosinski started an after-school cooking club for students. Eight students are in the club, which meets once a week for six weeks each semester.
“We’re not really focusing so much on recipes but on things like why it’s important to sear chicken, why it’s important to get grill marks on things and how to work with raw meat and the safety and sanitation involved with that,” Prosinski says. “We teach them cooking techniques.”
During the last week of the club, the school’s administrators and teachers allowed the club’s members to get ahead on their schoolwork. The students were then allowed to spend an entire morning with Prosinski preparing for a Chef Tim Day. “We got everything ready and put all the food up on the line and we had the kids who cooked it serving the food to their fellow students and teachers,” he says.
Prosinski took an even more hands-on approach with one high school student last year. The student wanted to get into the culinary field and would talk to Prosinski as she came through the lunch line. The student eventually asked her advisor and Prosinski if she could shadow Prosinski on occasion.
“I said no problem,” Prosinski says. “She’d come into the kitchen and slice and dice and help get ready for Chef Tim Day. Then I’d have her on the line cooking with me during Chef Tim Days. The kids could come up and see her cooking with her chef’s coat on and they would talk with her. The administrators were great in getting her free the hour or so before lunch so that she could come in and see how prep was done.”
Prosinski says a couple of other students have expressed an interest in shadowing him to see the day-to-day working of a school nutrition program.
Healthy changes: Because Prosinski has taken the time to get to know his students and to build relationships with them, the students are more willing to try some of the healthier items that are being added to the menu.
“This is my first job in school foodservice,” Prosinski says. “I was a chef before and a foodservice director for a couple of different hotels and restaurants. When I came here, I sat back for a little bit just to see how things worked. Throughout the past couple
of years, I’ve been trying to change things a little bit. I have a strong culinary background and I came in thinking I could change this and change that. It’s not that easy to get kids to eat as you think. If a parent shows their child the menu, and one day has stir-fry chicken and the next day has chicken nuggets, the kids are going to jump at the chicken nuggets.”
Prosinski started Chef Tim Days in an attempt to try to push students toward other options than the chicken nuggets and patties that they were used to purchasing. Through Chef Tim Days, Prosinski introduced students to different, healthier entrées such as stir-fry or pasta with vegetables.
“I’m only one chef and can only get around so much,” Prosinski says about the challenge of changing students’ dining patterns. “I came from feeding adults and they are a little more daring and savvy. Some of the kids really love the new items, but you’ve got to try to please the masses, which can be tough. The older students are more open-minded, but we’re getting the little guys there too.”
This school year Prosinski and his staff are incorporating more “home-style” entrées such as chicken stew, fresh-roasted chicken breasts and turkey stew. “I’d love to never serve another breaded piece of chicken again, but you have to get the kids to come in,” he says. “It’s not about the bottom line, but you’ve got to have the kids eat.”
On a chicken nugget day, Prosinski says he’ll serve around 280 students. On a day when he menus one of the healthier, home-style entrées, that number will drop to 180. “It’s nice that you’re serving [these healthier options], but you’ve got to get the kids to eat it too. We’re working on that this year.
“These kids are not shy to tell you what they think,” Prosinski adds. “They will tell me it was good or they will tell me to add this or that.”
Prosinski also is using money he gets from federal and state programs to purchase healthier foods. “We get money from them or a certain amount of poundage of raw meat that can be sent to a company to come back as the ever-loving chicken nugget,” he says. “We are now using those dollars to bring in fresh fruits and vegetables. In the past, purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables would be a direct hit to your bottom line.”
Since using more fresh produce on the serving lines, Prosinski has seen an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption. He says his staff likes using the raw products as well, instead of opening cans or using frozen products.
Czuchta also has seen a difference in the program since Prosinski has joined the team. “He’s really changed the direction of the program,” Czuchta says. “He really works to benefit the students, which I wouldn’t say is unique, but it’s very evident in everything he does. The program is focused on the children and involving them. He’s done a lot of community outreach, not necessarily to promote the program but to promote good eating.”