Operations

How the Edgefield County nutrition team is swapping heat-and-serve for scratch-made

The team has begun replacing heat-and-serve menu items for scratch-made meals, thanks to help from Chef Heather Biddlecome.
Students receiving food at school
Scratch-made muffins and more are being introduced to students this school year. | Photo: Shutterstock

At Edgefield County School District in Johnston, South Carolina, heat-and-serve options have traditionally been found throughout the school breakfast and lunch menu.

One of the reasons for their large presence is because the nutrition department doesn’t participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Foods in Schools program, which provides school nutrition programs with U.S. commodity products that are grown and produced for school use.  

“We receive cash in lieu of commodities,” says Child Nutrition Director Connie Cunningham. “As a result of that, most of the meals we offer are more things that you just heat up.”

That is all starting to change this school year, however, thanks to Cunningham hiring a chef to join the team using funding from a Healthy School Meals Incentive (HMI) grant offered through the USDA and nonprofit, Action for Healthy Kids.

The grant program is intended to assist small and/or rural school districts in sourcing local ingredients and expanding scratch-made menu items.

Through the grant, Chef Heather Biddlecome recently joined the team and has helped her new colleagues incorporate batch cooking and scratch-made recipes into the menu this school year.

Learning from each other

Before coming to Edgefield, Biddlecome worked various jobs in the food industry, including at a fine dining restaurant and in the kitchen at a childcare center.

“I thought she had the best of both worlds for our school district,” says Cunningham.

There was some initial hesitancy among staff when Biddlecome first came on board, but once she got inside the kitchen, she quickly built rapport among staff.

“When she goes into the kitchen, she's talking to [staff]. They're chit chatting, and they're learning alongside her,” says Cunningham.

Biddlecome also takes the time to listen to the staff and learn what goes into their day-to-day responsibilities of serving students.  

“They are able to share tips with her, but then, she's also able to share with them her expertise,” Cunningham notes.

Building in batch cooking and scratch-made recipes

One of the first tasks for Biddlecome was to develop a series of muffin recipes for breakfast.

“I wanted to start with muffins because when those children come to school in the morning, I wanted that scent of freshly baked muffins to radiate,” says Cunningham.

The nutrition team now has five different low-sugar muffin recipes developed by Biddlecome that they serve throughout their four-week cycle menu.

“We feature one from-scratch muffin each week,” says Cunningham.  

The muffins have resulted in a “overwhelming response” from students, Cunningham says, and have increased participation in the morning meal. So far, the lemon muffins and chocolate chip muffins are the clear fan-favorites.

Biddlecome has also helped the team incorporate more batch cooking. Previously, for certain menu items like chicken alfredo, staff would prepare the dish all at once in the morning.

Now, Biddlecome has taught the team how far in advance to start preparing the dish to make sure that it is served warm and fresh right when the students come down for lunch. Transitioning the recipe to batch cooking has also allowed the whole-grain spaghetti in the dish to hold up better.

“When you're dealing with whole grain spaghetti, the noodles kind of melt down a little bit more than they would if they were enriched white dough noodles,” says Cunningham. “So, batch cooking really works out well when you're dealing with the whole grain.”

The addition of Biddlecome has been a great benefit to the team, Cunningham says, and she’s excited to continue introducing new recipes to students when they return to class in the fall.

“Since she's been with us, she has taught so many skills to the cafeteria operators,” she says. “It's just been a joy to have her in our district.”

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