Aug 20, 2019

Reinventing Healthy Eating with Salad Bars

Lettuce for the salad bar
Lettuce for the salad bar

Director of Child Nutrition Services Jamie Phillips is not new to school salad bars, and it shows. Having already implemented his first salad bar program while at Upland Unified School District (USSD), Phillips wasted no time in applying for the Salad Bars to Schools program at his new district, Vista Unified (located in Vista, California). By leveraging the grant and new salad bars as a cohesive program, he established a crucial base for reinventing the way kids in his district view healthy eating.


Since implementing the salad bars in August 2017, Phillips has seen a tremendous impact on what children are eating.


"The biggest change is that, while all kids go through the lunch line, we have more kids taking items from the salad bar," Phillips said. He added that since they've upgraded from the old salad bars with cracked glass to sleek, brushed aluminum equipment, kids have been more likely to choose vegetables.


It's not just the physical salad bars that have changed kids' minds, though. Phillips’ program has launched other initiatives throughout the district that promote healthy eating to students. Classrooms now include lessons on how to create a "rainbow-colored" tray filled with fruits and vegetables, and the Harvest of the Month program features one special fruit or vegetable for kids to see and taste.


Gardening has also been a transformative part of their program. Vista Unified holds school garden classes in which kids grow all the produce," Phillips shared. From the garden, the fruits & vegetables go to the salad bar for the next lunch. Phillips often “pays” fair market value for all the produce, and the proceeds go right back into the garden program, which has proven highly successful.


"Our high school students at Vista High donated over 100 pounds of romaine lettuce, so they are interested in coming back to eat it," Phillips noted, indicating the excitement of student-grown nourishment.


Younger children are invested, too. Elementary schools hold farmers' markets at which students can purchase two school-dollars’ worth of produce. One school's mascot is the Panther, so students there pay in "Panther Bucks."


As a whole, Vista Unified School District (VUSD) has embraced the Farm-to-School mission. The cafeteria program partners with nearby farms to serve local produce and engage the community.


In the 2017-18 school year, VUSD's produce included over 75,000 lbs of California-based foods; as of February 2019, the district had already reached 144,000 lbs of local produce, staying on track to hit 175,000 lbs by the end of the year.


Working with small, local farmers requires extra work, but Phillips says it is worth it. The district works with 60 different farmers, some of whom only have a few acres of land. To help streamline the process, farmers deliver all of their produce to one central location, from which the district allocates out to schools.


Coordinating that many vendors into agreement is not easy. Most school food contracts include language that excludes farmers, and many farmers are hesitant to partner with schools due to the food regulations and requirements for delivery without contingency. To better embrace local procurement, VUSD drew up new contracts to offer more flexibility to farmers; if one farmer can't provide produce at a given time, the district will go to another farmer on the list.


"We want to work with farmers," Phillips said. "Our kids—their parents are working at these farms. We want to support the community."


All of this community coordination is possible with the district’s salad bars and their ability to serve a wide range of fresh and local produce. The program has also piqued parents’ interest. Phillips sends out a monthly newsletter offering kitchen tours and surveys to gauge awareness of the Farm-to-School and salad bar efforts. An elementary school survey this fall revealed that, of 195 responses, 95.7% were aware of their Farm-to-School salad bar.


"In the two and a half years I've been here, I've thrown a lot on my employees," Phillips acknowledged. "I am constantly trying to improve our farm-to-school programs. It wouldn't be possible without their support and dedication."


For VUSD, working towards food equity doesn't stop here—reducing food waste is another priority on Phillips’ list. He’s implementing share tables in the cafeteria in order to donate leftover food to food banks in the area.


"School food is critical," he said. "The food we are putting in our kids' bodies is a reflection of them. Our kids are going to be our future, realistically taking care of us some day. We need them to grow up healthy and take care of themselves. Hopefully, they can learn healthy habits at a young age and see the benefits of that long term."


For more information on the Salad Bars To Schools program, and to apply for a grant in your district, visit today.

Upland Unified Farmers Market
Upland Unified Farmers Market


May 29, 2019

Bellingham Public School Gets a Good Food Makeover

Two students enjoy Lummi Island Wild Salmon Cakes
Two students enjoy Lummi Island Wild Salmon Cakes

For Patrick Durgan, a focus on scratch-cooking practically came with the job. Soon after being appointed Director of Food Services and Executive Chef at Bellingham Public Schools (BPS) in Washington, Durgan jumped feet-first into Chef Ann Foundation’s Get Schools Cooking (GSC) grant program, a 3-year intensive dedicated to transitioning schools to scratch-cooking.


Durgan traveled to Boulder, CO where the Foundation is based, to join the 2017 GSC cohort for the program workshop March 16-17, 2017. This 3-day kick-off focuses on everything school districts need to know to start scratch-cooking, from procurement to accounting.


For Director Durgan, it was hugely beneficial to hear insights and gain perspective from experienced players in the school food movement, like Beth Collins and Chef Ann Cooper.


“It was great to have Ann to say, ‘Yeah, you can expect that,’ or ‘This is where you should be,’” he shared. "What I took away from it is that [implementing scratch cooking] is really hard.”


Through the GSC training, Director Durgan learned how to grab easy wins in the transition and about inevitable challenges he would face. For example, when cafeterias remove the high-fat, high-sugar foods that kids love, there can be a dip in participation, he explained, but once schools refine new recipes using student feedback, the system begins to work.


In his own words, simply put, "This isn't going to happen overnight."


The Work Begins

Transitioning to a scratch cooking model takes effort and time. Get Schools Cooking is a three year program, and, by next school year, cafeterias in the Bellingham, Washington district will be scratch cooking up to 30% of the food served to kids.


BPS is also shifting to a centralized production model—the model that Chef Ann recommends most often. The centralized model fits BPS’ need to streamline processes and production. The district originally used four production sites, each with different storage, infrastructure, and cooking capacity. The district has since reduced its production sites to three, but the central kitchen will undoubtedly be a game-changer.


"I think a lot of what we were doing was waiting … for the central kitchen to be built. We didn't have the infrastructure to jump into scratch cooking development."


Rather than wait until the kitchen is complete, Director Durgan has spent much of the last two years setting the stage for the major changes to come. His marketing efforts have centered on engaging the community around the new food system and implementing small changes, a few at a time, to get kids on board.


Thinking Local Food

"As we started changing our infrastructure and our menus a little bit, we learned it didn't work to change the menu drastically for kids,” Director Durgan explained.


Prior to its scratch cooking transition, the Bellingham school kitchens served pre-formed chicken breasts, which were processed but consistent portion sizes. Once the district began partnering with local farms, they could offer local chicken breast but now struggled with maintaining portions. In order to continue serving a similar chicken dish without the challenge of uneven portions, Director Durgan oversaw the transition to using pulled chicken in recipes.


Pulled chicken began replacing the pre-formed patties in dishes like chicken tacos or barbecue chicken sandwiches. Director Durgan explained that this meant “once we got into scratch production, kids wouldn't see a lot of change.”


Additionally, BPS is committed to supporting the local food economy, which means selecting ingredients from local farmers when possible. Next year, BPS will add salmon cakes to the mix, supporting local fishermen and using wild salmon from the nearby Puget Sound.


“When we can put a face to a carrot or a piece of broccoli, we can convince kids to try it. Plus it's fresher!” Durgan remarked.


The Road Ahead

Overall, Director Durgan says the community is enthusiastic about the improvements to school food.


About 33% of students in BPS qualify for free or reduced lunch, and about 18% of students pay for school lunch. Director Durgan expects to see the latter number rise as the district transitions more and more to healthy, scratch cooking— just as participation increased when they introduced salad bars two years ago.


"Since we've started making some of these changes, starting some of our scratch recipe testing and getting that out to kids… the response has been positive,” he said. "Kids are really savvy. They know what foods they like. Every kid in our district knows what quinoa is."


Quinoa, really? Yes, BPS has been partnering with food education groups for seven years now. From these programs, kids learn to take “adventure bites” and “not yuck someone’s yum.” Director Durgan noted that having this food education piece has been critical to gaining traction.


“If we can start food education at a young age and fight the stigma about who eats what, [we’ll] be able to share differences over food, [which] is a really important thing globally. No matter who we are or where we come from, we need food,” Director Durgan said.


As BPS experienced, school food change can take time—but with hard work and perseverance, big results centered on healthy fresh food can happen.


For more information on the Chef Ann Foundation’s Get Schools Cooking program, click here. Grant applications will re-open this August—stay connected via Facebook, TwitterInstagram and our newsletters to ensure you don’t miss out!

Sampler of Bluebird Grain farro salad
Sampler of Bluebird Grain farro salad
visioning board to plan out menu options
visioning board to plan out menu options
Mar 4, 2019

Two Grants for One Mississippi School District

It’s hard not to hear the excitement and enthusiasm in Donna Loden’s voice as she describes her work with Growing Healthy Waves and Tupelo Public School District (TPSD) in Tupelo, Mississippi.

“I’m really tenacious; once I lock onto a project and I’m passionate about something, I’m all in!” she professes.

Loden is a retired teacher from TPSD and a volunteer at Growing Healthy Waves, an initiative of the district dedicated to increasing children’s exposure to fresh fruits and vegetables. She is the pioneer behind the Project Produce and Salad Bars to Schools grants the Chef Ann Foundation awarded to the district in August 2016 and April 2017, respectively.

“When we got the salad bar funded, I got an email back from the Chef Ann Foundation on a Wednesday night, and I just let this scream go!” she recalls. “It was just a perfect circle; a circle of food.”

Since implementing these momentous changes in TPSD, Loden says the cafeteria culture has completely shifted. Five years ago, she says, the buzz word at school was always “nasty” in regards to vegetables.

When the district first started making these changes, adding salad bars and doing taste tests in schools, administrators released a survey to see if children’s attitudes towards fresh fruits and veggies had changed. Kids were asked to rate a piece of produce with one of the following statements: “Don’t like it,” “It’s okay,” “Like it,” or “Never tried it.” Loden remembers specifically how a group of third graders added a new category to the survey: “LOVE IT!”

“That spoke to me,” she says, “how a salad bar can affect children’s attitudes toward vegetables—having that emphasis on being able to provide them foods that they might not get at home.”

These days, children in TPSD can look forward to a garden tower, learning about hydroponics (a method of growing plants without soil using mineral nutrients in a water solvent) and finding new ways to incorporate growing vegetables. They’re even able to plant seeds in the district’s greenhouse.

“That was kind of amazing to a lot of kids; they had never planted a seed before. It’s a shame we live in one of the most fertile states in the nation, and there are a lot of kids that really do not know where their food comes from,” Loden says.

All of these educational pieces, along with the implementation of salad bars and nutrition awareness, have helped shape the state of TPSD’s school food system to date.

“It’s just fun to think of ways to get kids excited about what should rightfully be theirs anyway,” Loden says. “Chef Ann has been a part of that. I just have to give credit due to the people who have definitely helped us along the way.”

Interested in learning more about our grant opportunities? Click to get the scoop on the Project Produce and Salad Bars to Schools grants mentioned here.

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