Foodservice Operation of the Month

Grapevine-Colleyville ISD: Where cafeteria and classroom come together

The foodservice team makes nutrition an integral part of students' school day through themed literary lunches, math problems on cookie packaging and more.
Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District nutrition team
The nutrition team at Grapevine-Colleyville ISD tries to meet and connect with students through taste tests, cooking classes and more. | Photos courtesy of Grapevine-Colleyville ISD

For many young students, school foodservice is a concept relegated to the cafeteria: They swing by for a few minutes, eat lunch, and head back to class. It’s not something linked to the rest of their school day, and certainly not to their summers when school is out.

But at Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District in Texas, the foodservice team works hard to bridge the gap between cafeteria and classroom. Themed “literary lunches” tie into lessons. The team’s chef held a three-day cooking class in late June, weeks after the school year ended. Some treats like cookies include packaging with math problems to celebrate the district’s Mathematics Monday.

“Our motto is ‘More than just a school lunch,’ and we see ourselves as an important part of the school day,” says Food Service Director Julie Telesca.

“We are responsible for the only time that our students can recharge, replenish, refresh and enjoy time with their friends before going back to learn more. We take that mission very seriously,” she adds.

Telesca’s team uses the hashtag #morethanjustaschoollunch in nearly every post on group’s highly active X (formerly Twitter) account and other social media. Those posts back up the hashtag—highlighting interactive fun like taste tests of whole-grain egg rolls and a nutrition team member participating in an “AttenDANCE” with young students.

But it’s the #LiteraryLunch and #MathematicsMonday posts that perhaps best exemplify Grapevine-Colleyville ISD’s foodservice.

For example, as part of a March Literary Lunch, nutrition team members read "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" to the district’s Dove Elementary School students, who then enjoyed What-A-Lotta Meatballs for lunch. The older kids over at Grapevine Middle tried their hand at math problems printed on cookie packaging, with Chef Jason Aronen walking around to discuss.

“We have to get that face time and build trust if we want to make connections with students,” Telesca explains. “We want to teach them that nutrition is important for learning in school, but also for the rest of their lives. So, we really have to show them that we care, and that what we do has an impact on their day.”

Cloudy with a chance of meatballs lunch

Students at Dove Elementary School enjoyed What-A-Lotta Meatballs for lunch after reading Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. 

‘What we do has an impact’

That impact is always top-of-mind for the team, as the district of 13,500-plus students includes some economically disadvantaged areas. The foodservice team serves 18 schools, and all 16 of the pre-K-to-eighth-grade locations qualify for free meals under the National School Lunch Program.

“I stress to our people all the time: This lunch might be the only hot meal that child gets that day,” says Chef Jason Aronen. “So we have to make sure it’s good: that it tastes good, it looks good, it’s prepared well.”

Those are the mantras that Aronen relies on in his capacity as culinary trainer, particularly when educating new team members with little-to-no experience. Pre-COVID, Telesca estimates, about 70% of the team held five-plus years of service; today, 70% has less than a year.

“That’s why training is essential, and it doesn’t stop just because we’re in the middle of a four-week menu cycle,” Aronen says. “We’re finding more and more of the workforce doesn’t even cook in their daily lives, so sometimes, training means showing them how to use an oven step-by-step.”

This trend has inspired necessary changes to the menu, he adds, with a focus on “quick scratch” items, simpler cooking or assembly-centric preparation suitable for less-experienced culinary workers: barbecue cheeseburgers, the Texas-favorite Frito pie, chicken fajitas, and lasagnas.

“We do knife skills and culinary lessons, but the biggest thing we push is a sense of pride in our employees,” Aronen says. “Test the food. Season the meal. Our diners are kids: If they have an unseasoned boiled green bean, they’ll decide they hate green beans. But if we can add some lemon pepper, or a little bit of Mrs. Dash, and keep an eye on the cooking time that same kid might enjoy it and decide they love green beans. That’s a big thing.”

Children are also more likely to try meals when they’re part of it, Aronen knows. That was one of the driving philosophies behind a pilot program last summer: “Chef Jason’s Cooking Class,” held over three days in late June after the district had closed for the year. Students learned how to safely chop strawberries for a refreshing ice cream, to be enjoyed along with chicken egg rolls, dumplings, dipping sauces, and shortbread cookies that they took home—along with recipe cards.

These extra efforts have won Grapevine-Colleyville recognition. In October, Telesca learned she received the most prestigious honor of the 2024 FAME (Foodservice Achievement Management Excellence) Awards: the Golden Foodservice Director of the Year. (A member of the FoodService Director editorial team was part of the selection committee.) Telesca, in the industry for 28 years, says she was “so humbled and excited” to receive the award.

“We view ourselves as servers—here to serve others—so you’re never looking for pats on the back,” Telesca says. “But it’s always nice to hear validation that we’re doing what we’re supposed to, and that we’re having a positive impact. That makes it certainly one of the highlights of my career.”


Get to know Grapevine-Colleyville ISD’s Julie Telesca

See what’s in store for Telesca’s operation, which was named FSD’s April Foodservice Operation of the Month.

Q:  What is it that makes your operation excel?

As a team, across the board we’re always looking to improve what we’re doing. And if someone makes a mistake, it’s not about catching them or a “gotcha.” Instead it’s, “Let’s evaluate how we are doing things and let's make it better. How can we support you? What is it that you need from us to help this improve?” Each one of my team knows that all of us—me, my assistant director, our culinary trainer, our dietician and more—are all here to ensure they have the tools they need to do their job.

I believe that goes a long way. They can come to us—good, bad, indifferent, doesn’t matter—and they know we’ll immediately ask how we can help. In turn, our team members are so passionate and have such heart. It makes it a great place to work; we make each other better.

Julie Telesca
Julie Telesca

Q: What are your goals for the operation in the coming year?

We have a few. We’d like to rebrand our coffee shops for our students, including bringing in new products. We're also focusing a lot on global flavors for the next school year, including fusions of a few different cuisines, as that continues to be a hot trend. That will be part of an overall strategy of enhancing our menu and updating some of our overall program profile.

We’d also like to expand our cooking club, possibly including running it throughout the school year or at least holding one in the middle of the year so we can reach more students. We are always looking for ways to have a greater impact, so I could go on and on about our goals!

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