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.”
One 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.”
Cipriano reduced the number of entrée options to one to focus on a high-quality product, to save money by buying in bulk and to reduce waste. He is working to revamp high school service to include concepts like Asian, barbecue and subs to increase the number of offerings for high school students.
Even with one entrée item offered daily, Cipriano is introducing the students to new meals. “We did shepherd’s pie on St. Patrick’s Day and the kids didn’t like it,” Cipriano says. “They didn’t understand it. We’ll try it again. We want these kids to adapt to different tastes and different kinds of foods.”
Commodity products are another area Cipriano has focused on. Cipriano, who is known as the “local food dude,” is an advocate for using fresh, local produce whenever possible. Last year, he estimates that 12%, or 60,000 pounds, of produce served was from a local source. Cipriano also knows he has to take advantage of commodity products to keep costs down, so he is using those products in creative ways. One example is canned apricots, which were used to make a sweet and sour sauce.
Cipriano also has partnered with the Sound School, a New Haven high school that has an aquaculture and agriculture component. Using basil grown and harvested by students, Cipriano made a pesto chicken that was served at each of the 46 schools.
Other changes that focus on healthy dining include eliminating chocolate milk and serving cereals that have nine grams of sugar or less per serving.
Reaching out: Cipriano’s work doesn’t end when the students leave the cafeteria. “We are on the front lines of hunger,” Cipriano says. “There are children in our schools who rely on New Haven School Food as their only nutrition of the day and that saddens me.”
Because Cipriano is so passionate about feeding hungry children, he has become involved in many projects on the local and national level. In conjunction with Share Our Strength, a national organization that focuses on eliminating childhood hunger, Cipriano has helped organize Taste of the Nation New Haven, a fundraising event that raised $60,000 this year to help with anti-hunger campaigns in the city.
Operation Front Line is another Share Our Strength project Cipriano is involved with. Operation Front Line is a nutrition education program that teaches families how to prepare healthy meals on a limited budget. Cipriano is working to get these programs in his schools that serve low-income families.
Cipriano also was involved in developing Chefs Move to Schools, part of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign (see Five Questions for: Timothy Cipriano at foodservicedirector.com). Cipriano hopes to implement the initiative in his district by bringing in New Haven chefs to do cooking demonstrations with the students.
Cipriano also is working on expanding the district’s school gardens. There are currently several school gardens, none of which is large enough to sustain the produce needs of the school where it is located. At Barnard Environmental Studies Interdistrict Magnet School, the students help plant and tend a school garden that supplies some produce for the cafeteria. The garden’s main purpose is as an educational tool for the students.
Cipriano hopes to create a larger district farm that would be used to as a teaching tool. “We’ll try coconuts and pineapples. We know they’re not going to grow, but it’s an educational experience to let the kids understand why they don’t grow in Connecticut,” Cipriano says.
For someone who never thought about school foodservice as a career, Cipriano takes every opportunity to extend his department’s reach. “I was a chef working at restaurants,” Cipriano says about his life before child nutrition. “Did I ever think I would be a bald ‘lunch lady?’ Never. But I love it. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. All bets are off. Everything is on the table.”
“Every year since Tim has been here, we’ve increased the number of meals served each year and we have decreased our cost of food every year,” Clark says. “These two things would have been unimaginable in the program we had before. We’ve gone from corporate, processed food to the White House in two years. Tim has a dogged persistence in focusing on healthy food and getting everyone excited about what we can do in the cafeteria and how we can connect what we do in the cafeteria to the classroom.”