It takes a village: How Madison Metropolitan Schools was able to successfully pilot scratch-made meals

Staff training and partnering with school leaders was essential to making the program’s launch go smoothly.
Nuestro Mundo scratch-cooking
Students have been able to share feedback about the new menu items with staff. | Photo courtesy of Madison Metropolitan School District

Students walking the halls of Nuestro Mundo Community School in Madison, Wisconsin have noticed the scent of fresh ginger and more wafting through the air this semester. 

The tempting aromas are courtesy of the school’s scratch-made meals pilot which launched earlier this calendar year. 

Over the past several weeks, the nutrition team has swapped out heat and serve meals for scratch-made dishes like honey-ginger roasted tofu with cilantro lime rice and roasted broccoli. The changes haven’t gone unseen by students who have been quick to praise the new additions to the menu.

“The initial response that really stood out to me was that a lot of families who got in touch with us said, ‘My student came home talking about this,’” says Madison Metropolitan School District Food Service Director Josh Perkins.  

The program’s popularity is also reflected in the meal count. When comparing average meal counts between the first semester of the school year and the six weeks into the second semester when the scratch-made meals were introduced, lunch counts overall are up by 10%. 

The pilot’s success so far has been due to a massive team effort that involved both the nutrition staff as well as other school officials and leaders, Perkins says. And that will not change going forward as the pilot continues. 

Tackling Training 

To kick off the pilot, staff received training at the start of the new year so they could learn the ropes of preparing meals from scratch. 

One of the biggest changes staff had to acclimate to was learning how to time the food since they had been used to simply heating meals all at the same time and then serving them. 

“Now, we're talking about something that's much more carefully timed for food quality,” says Perkins. “You have to have a much more complex set of sensibilities in your head.”

For example, staff had to learn the difference in timing between things like chicken drumsticks, which can withstand a much longer period of hot holding compared to other ingredients like roasted vegetables. 

While there was a learning curve at first, says Culinary and Development Manager Tyrone Reese, staff were able to quickly pick up the new skillset needed for the meals and they are now much more comfortable with preparing them. 

“They're at the point where they understand how this style of cooking affects the students and they can just see the instant gratification everyday from the increases in meal counts and students changing over their meal preferences from getting that home lunch to eating scratch based foods,” he says.  

A team effort 

As the district introduces additional scratch-made recipes at Nuestro Mundo, staff will continue to receive training on how to prepare them. Reese is also planning to have staff complete annual training “just to make sure everyone is on the same page and for a refresher,” he says. 

All in all, Perkins considers the pilot a success so far. Not only has lunch participation increased at Nuestro Mundo, but the team has also seen an increase in breakfast participation even though they haven’t changed their breakfast offerings. 

“It seems like [the pilot] lifted the acceptance and interest in the meals overall even if the [breakfast] menu didn't change,” says Perkins. 

Going forward, the nutrition team will continue to bring scratch-made meals to additional schools in the district. 

Similar to when launching the pilot at Nuestro Mundo, the team will place a large emphasis on involving the district community at-large as they expand the pilot to additional schools. 

The focus on including district leaders and others outside of the nutrition team is essential, Perkins says, since launching and expanding a program of this magnitude is truly a team effort. 

“This was absolutely a community endeavor in my opinion. It’s not that food nutrition made a decision to do this and just made it happen,” he says. “It really wouldn't have been possible that way.”



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