4 takeaways from a recent summit of K-12 chefs
K-12 operators around the country met virtually last week as part of the Culinary Institute of America’s K-12 Healthy Kids Summit. Attendees and presenters discussed issues impacting the K-12 landscape as well as innovative solutions they’ve implemented. Here are four takeaways from the event.
1. Language matters
Looking beyond the pandemic, Dr. Katie Wilson, executive director of the Urban School Alliance, says K-12 operators have an opportunity to change how school food is perceived. One way they can start that change now is by altering the type of language they use. “I'm going to ask each and every one of you to stop using lunch lady as your language,” Wilson told attendees. Instead, she recommends K-12 operators refer to themselves as trained school nutrition professionals to reflect their skill set.
Wording changes can also make a difference elsewhere. Windham Raymond School District RSU14 in Windham, Maine, decided to sample blended beef-and-lentil meatball grinders to students and promoted the event as a tasting party instead of a taste test to help draw excitement. “You want to celebrate any opportunity to do something fun and different, and a party sounds so much more exciting than a test,” says food service director Jeanne Riley.
2. Working with naysayers
Wilson also suggested that K-12 operators look beyond their own nutrition department and partner with local restaurant chefs, hospital dietitians and others in the community to see what their operations are doing. She encouraged attendees to reach out to those who typically downplay school nutrition programs and invite them to be a part of the planning process. Including the naysayers provides an opportunity to educate them about school nutrition and the challenges K-12 operators face and bring them over to your side, she says.
3. Diversity due diligence
Chela Cooper, child nutrition programs operations specialist for the Maryland Department of Education, talked about her work with Baltimore Public Schools students and how school districts around the country should not only feature culturally diverse items on their menus, but also share the cultural significance of those dishes with students.
It may be hard to introduce new dishes currently due to the pandemic, Cooper says, so she suggests that operators consider making a micro-purchase of a sauce from a local chef who’s an immigrant to feature as a special condiment with the regular menu. “Adding a sauce or a condiment right now can help dress up some of your USDA foods direct delivery items or add some variety to your plan menu without shuffling your entire meal pattern,” she says. “It can help with menu fatigue, too.”
4. Staying accountable
At Seattle Public Schools, Food Service Director Aaron Smith says one way the district is ensuring its menus reflect student diversity is by meeting with families to ask what they would like to see offered and keeping in close contact with them to show that their feedback has been taken into account.
“One thing I learned about the families here in Seattle—they just like to see some type of actionable effort that their voice was heard,” he says. “And that's why we always make sure that we try to follow up, or at least make an attempt to put something on the menu to let them know that we're moving in that direction, but [we] always stay honest and let them know that sometimes it takes a while to procure ingredients and perfect the recipe to get it on [the menu] but I just keep that open dialogue and show them my effort.”
5. Education for staff
Just as K-12 operators should provide education and awareness to students about different types of cuisines and the story behind them, directors and managers should also provide that same knowledge to employees so they can understand the how and the why behind new menu items.
Sodexo Culinary offer development and deployment Michael Morris says that any time they’re going to launch a new dish, they make sure that staff understand that dishes’ background so they can then educate students about it. “For me, it starts with making sure our staff understands the recipe, what are the ingredients that go into it, the cultural significance of it and the steps they're taking to prepare it,” he says. “So, when the students come through, they're very educated and familiar with the product, and they can talk to the customers about that recipe.”