Ideas and innovation were center stage at the School Nutrition Association’s Annual National Conference in St. Louis this week. Attendees met to discuss solutions to labor challenges, menu problems and more. Here are seven ideas overheard at the conference.
1. A new nut-free pesto
When making a scratch-made pesto in a nut-free cafeteria, operators can easily use croutons in place of the standard nuts to create texture and flavor, says Sharon Schaefer, chef and director of nutrition services for Gretna Public Schools in Gretna, Neb.
2. Use mentorship as a recruiting tool
While it is hard to let mentees leave and take the next step in their careers—especially given the challenges of today’s job market—Jeanne Reilly, foodservice director at Windham Raymond School District RSU14 in Windham, Maine, uses her mentorship abilities as a recruiting tool. When talking with potential employees, she shares what she and others will be able to teach them on the job and gives examples of past employees who were able to move forward in their careers due to what they learned at the district.
3. Serve confetti fries
To encourage kids to try different vegetables, Schaefer serves confetti fries made from traditional potatoes and other vegetables such as carrots. The familiarity of the potato fries and the rainbow of colors makes kids more willing to try the veggies that are mixed in, Schaefer says.
4. Radiate an upbeat attitude
Employees at Auburn-Washburn Unified School District in Topeka, Kan., live by the motto “happy, helpful and friendly.” Staff are encouraged to maintain a positive outlook while acting friendly and helpful to their co-workers. Stan Vallis, foodservice director for the district, says this positive energy gets transferred to customers and improves their dining experience.
“If you're happy, helpful and friendly, and you have customers come in, they feel like you want them to be there,” he says.
5. Get on students’ level
To maintain a clean kitchen, Shenae Rowe, food and nutrition director at Warrick County School Corp. in Boonville, Ind., suggests that operators take advantage of the downtime after service to do a quick walkthrough, noting any wear and tear such as chipped tiles. She also suggests going through the line crouched down to students’ height to spot things that operators may miss but would be front and center for students.
6. Pickle produce for later
A great way to reuse leftover produce is pickling it for use in other dishes later in the week, Schaefer says. In the past, she has pickled leftover blueberries from the salad bar, then added them to a barbecue sauce served with chicken wings a couple days later.
7. Look to the larger team
Mentors can be found outside of the nutrition team, Reilly says, and may include leaders in other school district departments, such as principals. She says that she has learned a lot from her superintendent, specifically, about personnel management.