By Sue Kittel, Senior Program Officer, Park Foundation
All six Tompkins County public school districts and the Tompkins/Seneca/Tioga BOCES are taking their next steps forward as they focus on healthier school meals. Following five years of summer training opportunities at the teaching kitchen at Coltivare, Tompkins Cortland Community College’s Farm to Bistro Restaurant, local Food Service Directors gathered this past August to do some intensive learning and planning with Chef Ann Cooper and staff from the Chef Ann Foundation (CAF). The goal is to support each other as more healthy and scratch cooked meals are integrated into each program.
In preparation for this new opportunity, each district completed CAF’s on-line self assessment (SCALE) so that training and other needs could be identified. CAF’s Founder & President Chef Ann Cooper and Senior Director of Research and Assessment Anneliese Tanner later spent a week in Tompkins County, spending the first day training food service workers in marketing and enhanced customer service skills. Every single school kitchen in the county (27 in all) was visited and assessed and district food service operations were reviewed over the course of two days. Using the information gathered and the ideas discussed in the workshops, Food Service Directors then began developing their own individualized strategic plans to transform their operations in the final set of workshops.
One thing that was stressed is that results will be sustainable when they are implemented one step at a time. Small, successive changes over the next three to five years is the goal. A strategic plan will ensure that each district is on track and can measure its progress.
The second thing that continues to be stressed is that, through a partnership between the Park Foundation, Tompkins Cortland Community College and the Chef Ann Foundation, food service workers will be supported at every step along the way. Just sixty days since the training has been completed and already area children are benefitting from some of the changes. Aiming to reduce sugars in meals, several of the districts are offering juices and flavored milk less often. Dryden Central School is now offering “spa water”, which is simply tap water with a different fruit floated in it and flavoring it each day. The students have taken to this with enthusiasm, with younger ones excited to find out what the flavor of the day is. As Chef Ann emphasized, this is self-serve. We allow kids to serve themselves in restaurants and they can manage it at school. And they do.
Another key focus of the program is the multi-district collaboration. The support and ability to share stories, concerns and solutions, provides some welcome respite from what can be an isolated job filled with challenges. Discussing difficult situations and various approaches to addressing them is a big part of the monthly Food Service Director’s gatherings. So is sharing recipes, success stories and some laughs.
The next phase of the work is completion of the strategic plans, with the support and feedback of the CAF staff. Adoption of these plans will lead to the implementation phase, where the slow and steady progress will continue.
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This article originally appeared in the Winter 2023 issue of Fresh Bites, a New York School Nutrition Association publication.