Brent T. Frei 0000-00-00 00:00:00
BEYOND THE (COOK) BOOK: HOW A SCHOOL NUTRITION OPERATION CAN ENHANCE THE EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES OF A DISTRICT’S CULINARY ARTS TRAINING PROGRAM—AND VICE VERSA. When a school district provides a vocational culinary training program for its secondary school students, it would seem only natural that the kids who are learning to cook might collaborate in some way with those responsible for feeding K-12 customers. And in many communities, they do. How about your school district? If you’re not even sure if your district offers any kind of vocational training program, never mind one focused on culinary arts, this article could open eyes and doors for win-win partnerships worth pursuing. What type of collaborations can result? Sometimes, the mutually beneficial relationship between a district’s school nutrition department and its vocational training program is as simple as involving culinary arts students in testing new products for consideration for the meal program. In other districts, the school nutrition team offers up a central and/or individual site kitchen and staff expertise, effectively creating viable internship opportunities where students gain hands-on, real-life foodservice experience. Mesa (Ariz.) Unified School District, which manages a culinary arts program through its Career and Technical Education Department, does both. The Food and Nutrition Department provides work experience to culinary students in conjunction with the district’s student worker program. “We also conduct product taste testing with students in the culinary classes,” reports Loretta Zullo, SNS, director of food and nutrition. “We find them to be not only willing, but effective panelists, who provide valuable feedback.” Made to Order Across the country, the Eastside High School Culinary Arts (EHSCA) program and the School Food and Nutrition (SFN) program at Alachua County School District in Gainesville, Fla., partner together for another example of an effective alliance. They leverage the fact that Alachua County is the administering district for a large school nutrition buying group of 13 counties; vendors introduce new products to purchasing cooperative members at the EHSCA building. This makes it convenient for EHSCA students to sit in on scheduled presentations. It’s good for the students—and for the participating school districts. “This works very well for each of the county directors, as the students give instant feedback on the products presented, as well as write reports on their preferences,” recounts Alachua SFN Director Maria Eunice. As a bonus, students gain exposure to another group of “instructors,” Eunice continues. “Also at these meetings, the vendors make presentations to the students, sharing career opportunity details and various types of foodservice information.” EHSCA students also can take advantage of internships to work in Alachua’s SFN program during the summer. “The director of the EHSCA program and I have an excellent relationship,” attests Eunice. “We often share our expertise with each other about various pieces of equipment, [school] gardening tips and food items that we are testing or have on hand that the other might be researching.” Produce Practicum While a good many U.S. school districts offer vocational culinary arts training, not all school nutrition operations can take advantage of the availability of skilled students by providing them with internships in their cafeterias or requesting their feedback on new products. But these arrangements aren’t the extent of the valuable collaborations that can occur. For example, students from four high schools enrolled in culinary arts at Bath Regional Career and Technical Center along the central Maine coast help to prep vegetables for the annual harvest lunch that the local school district holds throughout its schools in September. They also make the stuffing and cranberry sauce for the high schools’ holiday lunch scheduled in late fall. “Our students gain experience in large-scale food production,” says chef-instructor Elizabeth Baldwin, who adds that although she’d like to see a more extensive and formal relationship with the district’s school nutrition department, union rules protecting employee hours do not permit her students to do hands-on work in internships. Still, Baldwin has found other means for her culinary students to engage with the district. They maintain a school garden and sell harvested produce to the school meals program. The students also prepare chili and soups that they sell at cost to the high school booster club to resell at home football and soccer games at a profit. “There’s better-quality food at the snack bar as a result, and it keeps our program’s name out there,” Baldwin explains. Work? Study? Why not Both? School nutrition directors and chefinstructors in districts where successful collaborations thrive acknowledge that such relationships don’t always develop easily. But with a little commitment on both sides, the pros for both parties usually far outweigh the cons. At Woodville-Tompkins Technical and Career Institute in Savannah, Ga., many students are finding the perfect recipe for a bright future in foodservice. The first ingredient is the high energy and passion of Chef Stephen Martin, an instructor with a background in professional cooking at a broad range of operations from white-tablecloth restaurants to mom-and-pop eateries. His enthusiasm makes him a hero to most of his students—and whether they pursue post-secondary training or not, many have landed jobs in foodservice operations throughout this part of Georgia. “Learning should not be a chore,” Martin asserts. “It should be something to look forward to. I tell my students to be passionate, and if you love it, you won’t ‘work’ another day of your life.” Culinary students at Woodville-Tompkins must gain practical experience to complete their training, and this sparked an idea from Savannah-Chatham County Public School System’s Altheria Maynard. More than a year ago, Maynard, who retired this summer as the school nutrition program’s director, envisioned using the system’s 10 high schools as excellent practicum sites for a sub-section of Woodville-Tompkins’ culinary arts students: those with special needs. “They actually are very good workers,” praises Rhonda Barlow, one of the district’s four school nutrition coordinators. “In an environment where teamwork is everything, a school [foodservice site] is inherently more cooperative, giving students who are not the ‘norm’ more support in their learning. Once they learn that skill, they know that skill, and with that track record of success, the community will be aware of their skill sets and [ultimately] provide employment for a group that otherwise is not on top of the employment list.” In fact, Savannah-Chatham’s school nutrition internship program for culinary arts students with special needs has proven so successful that, starting with the current school year, the school nutrition operation has expanded its partnership, now providing opportunities for mainstream culinary arts students from Woodville-Tompkins to work behind the lines at select school sites. These students will be able to get their work experience Monday through Friday, leaving weekends and evenings free—a perk they would not enjoy at a restaurant, Barlow notes, but an opportunity that mirrors commercial foodservice in almost all key aspects. “If you look at our menu and the average lower-end to middle restaurant, it’s not that different,” she points out. “So, the bottom line is students will be able to train and get off early, and the environment will be friendly. They’ll walk out the door with a skill set that is comparable to what many of them would end up with, anyway.” Not to mention they will receive an early introduction to the benefits of a career in school nutrition! The culinary internships last one semester—half the school year. Each school “work-study” site can accommodate up to two or three Woodville-Tompkins students before the school kitchens get too crowded. Chef Martin is optimistic that the new school site internship option will prove beneficial to his mainstream students who elect it, especially in exposing them to another option in the culinary profession outside of fine dining. Ultimate Meal Ambassadors A formal vocational training program is not the only means for engaging students in the professionalism of school nutrition. Consider the experience of Robert Rusan, chef for the Maplewood Richmond Heights (Mo.) School District. Prior to taking this position, Rusan owned a catering service and had been cooking most of his life. But once he discovered school nutrition? “This is my most rewarding job without the tips,” he asserts. That’s partly because of the creativity his district allows him to apply in developing menus and meals, from growing produce in school gardens to purchasing locally sourced meats, eggs, etc. And Rusan doesn’t just share his love of fresh foods with the student customers (school gardens yield kale, cabbage, corn, root vegetables, herbs and much more, while apple trees, berry shrubs and even a beehive are other very local sources). He also hires and trains student employees. In a two-part, unaccredited training program that Rusan designed, student employees who earn ServSafe® certification first work at St. Louis University during the summer months, preparing dishes from fresh crops, some of which are stored for out-ofseason service, such as mashed potatoes that get vacuum packed or sliced apples and berries that are flash frozen. After completing the summer program, the students join Rusan at the district’s combined middle/high school in the fall, assisting with prep work and “other tasks as assigned,” from cleaning cases of chicken to cutting up vegetables to making homemade yogurt and cheeses to some scratch baking. A favorite chore among student employees, says Rusan, is making pizza with homemade marinara sauce from just-plucked tomatoes atop a flour dough crust purchased from a vendor who uses one of Rusan’s recipes. Similar to a paid internship, six to eight students in a given period receive a minimum wage for just over five hours of work over two days per week (more if they also assist with catering jobs). The teen workers understand that they can be suspended for poor behavior and performance. “This is the real world, and your grade is your paycheck,” Rusan notes. The program lasts for two years; sophomores and juniors are preferred, and students must re-apply to participate the second year. While he conducts “a little recruitment,” Rusan mostly relies on the paycheck as a powerful incentive. As with many first-time jobs, however, foodservice isn’t the right fit for everyone. He acknowledges that only a few of his “graduates” have gone on to take foodservice jobs or to pursue additional culinary training. “Once they’re in, sometimes it isn’t to their liking. I have some nice students who [enjoy] cooking, but not at this volume. They just want to learn to cook for themselves or their family.” For the school nutrition program, there are some real benefits to having foodservice employees come from within the student body. Among them is an increased respect for the meals that are served, gained both by the kids behind the line and their customer peers out front. Rusan’s student workers “have to put out a quality product,” he notes. When they do, they take pride in their creations, and that attitude is passed on to the students in a wider circle than a single clique of friends. The peer power in “advertising” a pasta salad or homemade soup gets customers excited, increases participation—and helps to overcome fear of the unfamiliar. “My kids helped prepare a spinach lasagna, which was something [they had] to get used to,” recounts Rusan, noting that most customers were used to beefbased recipes. “Having these students prepare it and say to other students, ‘Wait ‘til you try it’ makes them ambassadors of the meal program.” Being Hospitable Rockdale Career Academy, one of four high schools serving Rockdale County (Ga.) School District in a mostly rural area east of Atlanta, operates a culinary arts vocational training program. The site also offers cafeteria meal service, through the district’s school nutrition department, for the students enrolled in one of the 18 vocational disciplines offered. The school was the first in the state to combine both kitchen operations into one; today, school nutrition personnel share the facility, often working side by side with culinary students. A big benefit of the collaboration is shared operational costs, explains Peggy Lawrence, SNS, school nutrition director. “We share the things that are expensive,” such as a walk-in freezer, dish machine and cooler. Some things are kept separate, she notes. “They use a lot of ranges and cooktops, and we don’t cook on ranges. Their side has a lot of convection ovens, and our side has a steamer and kettle.” Another thing Lawrence and her team shares? Their expertise—particularly in the form of unpaid student internships at district high schools. While internships are not a required element of Rockdale’s ACF-certified culinary arts program, students can participate to receive valuable experience—and credits toward graduation. “It works out really well for students who don’t have transportation to get to another location, so that can be a win-win,” Lawrence reports, conceding that success depends on the manager at each school being willing to work with the students. There are some among her staff who can get a bit territorial. But at the Academy site, she believes it’s important to being open to what else is going on in that building—including culinary instruction. “I want us to be part of it. It elevates us,” Lawrence explains. It is, after all, an educational setting, she notes. And by partnering together, each side learns from the other: “Culinary students see our operation from our eyes, and we see it from theirs.” Beyond the internships and shared facilities, Lawrence offers the culinary arts program additional hands-on training opportunities. For example, “They cater our two large employee events each year, which is tremendous,” she says. “It’s turned into a really big deal over the years.” Community expectations for the food produced by a school nutrition program are usually fairly low. But when students see firsthand the expertise and passion showcased by their adult counterparts in cooperative projects, it helps to raise awareness. As evidence, Lawrence cites a letter sent from a recent culinary grad to the Academy’s cafeteria manager, praising the experience she gained and soft skills she learned. “We were all in tears,” Lawrence recalls. “I was telling my managers, this child is heading off to college now, will one day have children of her own and her experience with us will have forever shaped her feeling about the school cafeteria.” A WORTHWHILE ELECTIVE Inspired by the partnerships between the school nutrition operations and culinary arts programs described in this article? You may be able to put the wheels in motion to begin a similar collaboration in your own school or district. Here are five steps that might help you get started. 1 First, find out if your district or school offers a vocational culinary arts program for secondary students. If so, find out who is responsible for the program and reach out to that individual to determine if there is a shared interest in working together. 2 Next, arrange for two tours: one by you and your top school nutrition team members of the culinary arts facility and one for the culinary arts instructor or program chair to see your school kitchens, central production facility and warehouse areas. Make sure the school nutrition tour highlights pertinent details about how culinary students might benefit from a collaboration; point out the experience they will gain with menu creativity, high-yield production equipment, point-of-service diversity, the different types of programs offered, food safety fundamentals and so on. Note some of the areas for which you are looking forward to their participation: fresh eyes and enthusiasm, peer marketing, menu/ recipe development, new product testing and more. You want to be sure that your culinary arts counterpart doesn’t think you are just seeking cheap/free labor for the “grunt” work! 3 After the tours have been conducted, set a date for a brainstorming meeting between your team and the culinary arts instruction team to discuss broadly options, opportunities, restrictions, limitations and so on. Let the specific logistics wait until the next meeting. For now, you want to identify the win-win for both partners. 4 Once you have established a basic direction, meet alone with your team to detail all the logistics. Identify every potential obstacle and headache, so you can brainstorm the solutions ahead of time. How many students can be accommodated in a kitchen? Are there conflicts between your service/prep time and their instruction time? Who needs to approve such a collaboration? Is funding required—whether for paid internships or just for an additional set of uniforms? Are there district policies or union agreement provisions that affect your ideas? 5 Prep your team. No matter how you intend to incorporate culinary arts students into your operation— as tasters, advisors, cooks or servers—it will be a change from what you are doing now. Emphasize the importance that all staff be good hospitality ambassadors in their own right. They should be as welcoming to the students they will be working with as they are to the students they serve. BONUS WEB CONTENT In school districts that don’t offer formal vocational training in culinary arts, cooking can still be a valuable tool that provides students with benefits in all areas of their lives. To read additional web-only content about an Arizona district’s middle school “culinary institute,” visit www. schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent. SNAPSHOT ■ Partnerships with vocational culinary arts training programs can range from taste-testing opportunities to paid and unpaid internships in school kitchens. ■ Such real-world culinary experience for students can lead to acceptance at culinary schools, self-confidence and a dedicated work ethic. ■ Culinary students involved in assisting with school meals can serve as great ambassadors for the program.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
This page can be found at http://mydigimag.rrd.com/article/The+Art+of+A+Culinary++Collaboration/1162803/124567/article.html.