Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Model School Food Program in Marblehead

I know there are schools that cook meals from scratch in their own kitchens.  Last week, I finally saw such a school first-hand.  Laura De Santis, Nutrition Director at the Marblehead Community Charter Public School in Marblehead, MA let me spend a day with her and her staff.    

 The day’s lunch menu: chicken and veggie curry over rice and lentils.  Included in the price of lunch are the salad bar and dessert, today, a banana and blueberry cake.   Did I mention that the curry did not come out of a can, nor was it reconstituted from a flavor packet, but the kitchen staff made it using real, raw ingredients?  Same goes for the dessert made with whole grain oats and fresh blueberries.      

I asked Laura, “What’s the best way to get kids to buy into the lunch program?”   The students, 4th – 8th graders, would happily eat pepperoni pizza, chicken nuggets, and fries for every meal, so getting them excited about healthier foods is a challenge.  Although Laura often gives out samples of foods to students who are apprehensive about trying something new, the integration of the kitchen and food in the school community fosters trust in the food and open-mindedness not often seen in schools.

Nutrition Director, Laura DeSantis, and volunteer, David Stein

Out of a French cooking class Laura taught came a French school lunch complete with crepes, Nicoise salad, and ratatouille.  When students read the book “Three Cups of Tea,” teachers worked with Laura to make a Pakistani curry, similar to the one I enjoyed during my visit, and chai tea for lunch.  This interplay of food and curriculum gives students a context for appreciating food and culture. 

The cafeteria isn’t just a place where kids shovel food in their mouths, it’s a vibrant part of the school community.  Parents volunteer in the kitchen, and the business manager helps serve meals.  After lunch, students do the bulk of the cleaning: they wash the dishes, tables, salad bar, and main meal line! Need I say more?

A student clearing ice out of the salad bar

Thursday, May 20, 2010

New Position

My school kitchen

My school finally offered me the position of food service director!  I bet most of you assumed I was the director already.  I’ve had some authority to make improvements over the last two years, but it’s been quite limited.  I am currently a co-director, and I share the responsibility of running the kitchen with the other co-director.  One month I run it, the other month she runs it.  Strange, isn’t it?  There’s a very long story behind it.  My co-director is retiring after forty years at my school, and I’ve been busily figuring out how to bring a better lunch to my school.  This is the first time I will really be able to make vast changes to our meals, so I’m trying to learn everything I can now to be ready when the next school year begins.   

As part of the learning process, I've contacted all of our vendors and told them we're trying to serve better food.  Do they have less processed items that might fit with our goal of serving healthier foods?  I'm still looking for a corn tortilla without all the strange additives.  I'm visiting several schools with good food programs to pick the brains of their directors and see other kitchens and cafeterias in action.  Several of them suggestion that getting students involved when introducing new foods to the menu is the best way to get students excited for healthy improvements.  I've also sadly realized how small my school kitchen is compared to other schools :( 

FYI: I'm sorry posting has been very infrequent lately.  I've been very busy at work and just started exercising in the evenings.  I will be posting a little more often now, as my 2nd job as a private chef has ended for the school year and won't resume until the fall.      

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

MA Farm to School Conference

I attended the Massachusetts Farm to School Project “Shoptalk” conference a couple weeks ago, which featured speakers that are successfully integrating local farm produce into schools. 

I’ve always wondered how large school districts start up their programs, and I got to hear from a few different schools, including Boston, the largest in MA.  Boston has 135 schools in its district, and getting local food is a lot more complicated than getting it, say, to my small independent school.  While Boston initially contacted a farm with an interest in purchasing, getting the produce to all of their schools would take too much time for one farm.  To work around the logistics, they found a produce delivery company that was already trucking produce into Boston.  However, Boston wanted to ensure that they were getting local produce from the farm they picked out and not items from far away.  This delivery company began labeling all boxes so that they could distinguish one farm from another.  What a great idea!

I also happily listened to Ken Watts of Johnson and Wales University, which runs a top culinary school in the country.   Johnson and Wales not only uses local produce in their school in Rhode Island, it is educating the next generation of chefs about it.  I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, and when I attended, local produce wasn’t emphasized in classes despite its close proximity to farms.  A look on their website and I see that a lot has changed since I went to school!

I left the conference completely inspired and with a list of contacts (including contact for Four Star Farms , which grows and mills its own grains right here in MA) and a bag brimming with information (including a link to Somerville Public School’s guide to How To Hold Cafeteria Taste Tests when introducing new foods to students - scroll to the bottom of the page to download the pdf). 

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Behind The Kitchen Door Series: Snack Time

Bag of snacks destined for a lower school class

Mid morning snack time is all about prepackaged food at my school.  Younger students get snacks delivered to their classroom from the kitchen.  Due to food allergies and sensitivities, the list of acceptable snacks keeps getting smaller every year.  There’s a two-week rotation of food such as pretzels, graham crackers, string cheese, oyster crackers, and apple sauce.  Not very exciting but no more allergy issues. 

 Cart of snacks for middle & upper school 

Middle and upper students get a fifteen-minute break and may purchase items from the cafeteria.   An average day of snacks includes a baked good, 100% fruit juice boxes, and roughly ten kinds of prepackaged snacks.  Last year, we had a nutritionist come to our school, who recommended a few items to add to our list of snacks to make better options available to our students.  For example, our chocolate chip muffin (a student favorite) is sometimes sold along side a honey bun made with whole wheat.     

Apples, along with pear, bananas, and tangerines mixed in occasionally, are available free of charge all day long.      


Sunday, May 2, 2010

Operating Without Clean Water

Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink

Yesterday, a water main burst in Weston, Massachusetts leaving Boston and dozens of other communities without clean water for drinking or even hand washing.  Since my school is in the affected area, I anticipate many changes in school lunch tomorrow if this isn’t fixed by then.       

Drinks - We will serve no juice or water from our drink machines, which pull water from our pipes.  We will serve milk in cartons and juice in bottles.  We will probably boil and then chill water for drinking if this is to last more than a day.  We will use no ice. 

Dishes - Because it may not be safe to use our dishwasher, we will use paper plates and plastic utensils.  We keep disposables around in case of emergencies like this.           

Salad/Deli bar - Unless we boil water and chill it, we won’t have water to wash our vegetables or our equipment.  We may still serve salad, but it may be limited to items pre-made or pre-washed such as mesclun mix, hummus, and granola.  My main concern in running our salad and sandwich bars is how to wash all of our crocks and pans at the end of the day.       

Main meal - chicken patties sandwiches, pasta salad, and ice cream.  Luckily, the chicken patties are thaw-and-serve, so no washing required!  I think we’ll ditch the pasta salad.  The ice cream is a go.  

Hand sanitizer and gloves will be used abundantly.