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How a K-12 chef broadens students' horizons

Chartwells Chef Jones
Photograph courtesy of Chartwells

Chef Jammar Jones joined the Chartwells K-12 team at La Canada High School in La Canada, Calif., about three years ago. Since then, he has helped broaden students’ palates by serving ethnic cuisine that celebrates local ingredients. FSD talked to Jones about where he seeks food inspiration and the variety of events he’s helped create for students, such as a Taste of LA lunch.

Q: How did you get started in K-12 nutrition?

I was working in Chartwells’ catering sector in Manhattan before I moved to LA, and I was just fortunate to find this position. I didn't know this job even existed, so it's just really awesome to be a part of it. This job has so much room for creativity and expression.

Q: Where do you find food inspiration?

Our neighborhoods are an inspiration in and of themselves. So we get a lot of inspiration just by driving around and hanging out in LA all the time. … I also check a lot of food blogs, and I'm definitely following food trends to help us to determine what the kids are into these days.

Q: How do you see your nutrition program evolving in the next few years?

We always try to push ourselves and create things that are fun and nutritious. I think there’s going to be a lot of plant-based alternatives. Our vegan and vegetarian audience has grown immensely in the last couple of years, so I predict that we’ll be offering a significant amount of locally sourced produce. I think we're going to see more fruits, less fries and a lot more whole grains.

Q: How did the idea for the Taste of LA event come about?

It was the end of the school year, and we wanted to end it with something fun and exciting for the lunchroom that was locally inspired. So we chose local neighborhoods with unique dishes to feature on the menu, and then we worked with the school district to really implement it and make it fun and get the kids excited about it. The main goal was to really just celebrate the diversity of LA cuisine while educating and expanding the kids’ palates. Some kids haven't been to certain areas [of the city] before, so it was critical for them to experience that and hopefully instill a desire for them to go and kind of seek out these places.

Q: You also host weekly outdoor barbecues for students. How did that begin?

When I started here, I said, “Let's take advantage of the Southern California weather, instead of just burgers and hot dogs and doing all that stuff inside, let’s just bring it outside.” I think it was a really great thing to implement, and it's been a staple ever since. We love that the kids can not only engage with us, but also engage with each other. We do a family-style buffet, and it's great how just tweaking the experience a little bit to bring [students] outside really changes the whole dynamic of lunch at school.

Q: Do you have any advice for those just entering a managerial or leadership position in school nutrition?

Always continue to do what you love and definitely be creative and be innovative. I feel like you need to set the bar high for yourself and always focus on really building your craft. It’s also very important to listen to your employees, and don't be afraid to take advice or critique from anyone that's trying to help you out.

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