I haven’t written about my rotations in a while, and for good reason. You know how when you’re little they tell you “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? It was a situation like that. One week I felt like I was being used for cheap labor, and the other I was just really really bored.
Last week and this week, however, I’ve been with St. Bernard Parish School Food Service. The food service director here, Joni Blum, is a riot! She always has a million and one things to say, and absolutely loves her job. I just about jumped for joy when she handed us (Aly, Alyssa, and I) a schedule for the two weeks we were here and an outline of the assignments that we are to complete by the end of the rotation – that sort of organization has been sorely missed in my life lately!
So what does a food service director do? Many people don’t know what goes into being a food service director for a school district. Joni is wayyyy more than a glorified lunch lady! Although Joni’s nutrition expertise is a masters degree, many women with her job have their RD. This sort of advanced training is required because the National School Lunch Program has very rigorous (and newly revised!) standards that require menus to be planned in meticulous detail. There are maximum calorie standards, whole grain requirements, certain amounts of different types of vegetables that need to be served, along with a bunch of other requirements that I can’t list here and expect anyone to stay awake.
Not only does Joni need to plan the menus, but she is responsible for acquiring the raw products as well. This means that she has to attend shows where food companies sample the products that are on the market, put in bids for the items she needs in the appropriate quantities, and coordinate storage and distribution to the different schools in the district. She works closely with the managers at each school to ensure that they understand what is required in order for a meal to be reimbursable by the government through NSLP, which requires routine trainings and meetings. She is constantly in contact with “the ladies” to answer questions about substitutions on the menu.
Last week, we worked on several notable projects. The first and simplest was a series of posters for the cafeterias taking the myplate visual idea and applying it to a lunch tray with the compliance rules for elementary, middle, and high school serving requirements. This is mostly for the lunch ladies to look at, as the kids don’t have a choice of what they are served.
Because of new NSLP caps on the amount of protein per day a favorite meal – meat chili and hot dog – cannot be served at lunch anymore. To be able to serve the same chili cheese dog, Joni wanted to test out a vegetarian chili recipe that had been posted online from a school system elsewhere in the country. It was our job to try the recipe, tweak as needed, and provide feedback on how long it takes, how much labor went into the chili, and overall feasibility of adding the item to the lunch menu.
The recipe basically consisted of mixing dehydrated onions, diced green pepper, canned tomatoes, and canned beans with spices and a slurry of corn starch and water; then cooking it all. At first, it was so bland that it was almost painful to eat. After adding extra spices, some oregano, and some more liquid, it was actually really good! I still would choose a different recipe for myself, but the quick-thickening power of corn starch is a life saver in the food service setting. The managers from all of the elementary schools sampled it at a meeting that Joni held for them, and they liked it! SCORE!
****Full disclosure: Aly and Alyssa are both Johnson and Wales graduates, so the chili success is likely not at all due to my input***
In order to plan great menus, Joni must have an understanding of the workflow in the kitchens. In order to give us some perspective on that, my Friday was spent as a lunch lady. The school I went to was pretty far out in the eastern reaches of Louisiana, which means country and space and a little more comfortable (and a 5:30 AM wakeup call). Here is a picture from the drive over:
I went in, hairnet and all, and served both breakfast and lunch to the little rascals at Gauthier Elementary. To be honest, there wasn’t much for me to do – all tasks had been delegated to the women on staff. Mostly I hung around and observed that there is a lot of extra time that could be spent making things from scratch.
One thing I was worried about is that they added butter AND cheese to the broccoli. I have my doubts that this was on the menu, and thus that these fatty additions put the meal over compliance limits for saturated fat:
There was not much for me to do through the whole cooking process, but I did get to help serve. I feel like I have a better understanding of what the lunch ladies have to deal with and how the menu choices affect their day. Let me say, they can most certainly make chili!
This week, we will be doing counseling with students of the school district. Today we were able to go to Chalmette High School, where there is a health center built right into the school! It’s like a walk-in clinic instead of a nurse’s office, so while the rest of the world’s schoolchildren are being instructed to gargle with salt water, these kids are getting state of the art care, they can have all sorts of labs taken, and they even have a social worker on staff.
On Wednesday, we will be giving a talk to a support group that is regularly held for teen mothers. Tomorrow is our prep day for that, but we plan to briefly touch on the importance of breastfeeding, but focus on modeling healthy habits so that kids learn to eat well as they transition to regular foods. We figured this would be most important, as it gets the moms eating healthier and their kids eating great from the start! I definitely want to include some quick, easy recipes that can be made using the foods received from WIC, and perhaps have a taste test. I’m super excited for this! Apparently this group is really receptive to these kind of talks and loves to participate, which is my very favorite part about nutrition. Helping people that want to be helped is such a gratifying experience.