By Cecily Walters 2014-10-28 14:30:03
Learn how one school nutrition operation gives its staff and program the opportunity to shine by offering top-tier training. Check the calendar: If “Yakisoba Noodles with Bok Choy and Asian Coleslaw” is on the menu, it must be California Thursdays™! At least this is likely in the Oakland (Calif.) Unified School District (OUSD), where the school nutrition department partnered with the Center for Ecoliteracy to pilot a bold farm-to-school initiative that has now expanded to 15 other school districts around the Golden State. There’s a great story to tell about this program, which builds school meals solely using ingredients from California growers and producers, but in this issue of School Nutrition, we want to focus on just one component of OUSD’s pioneering efforts: the training program that ensures the district’s meals do the state’s agriculture community proud. Read on, as OUSD Executive Director of Nutrition Services Jennifer LeBarre, SNS, and Farm to School Supervisor Alexandra Emmott, SNS, share the details of their innovative training camp sessions. Planting the Seeds LeBarre signed on to the farm-to-school pilot because she recognized the role that highlighting local foods could play in providing healthy menu options to her students. But she also understood that the initiative’s success would hinge on her team being able to prepare the new recipes and produce high-quality, delicious meals that students would embrace. It would require some culinary training. The first step was the development of the recipes, and that began with a focus group in March 2013 involving some OUSD school nutrition team members (LeBarre, several managers and field supervisors and the operation’s menu planner and representatives from a community partner). Emmott and Adam Kesselman, a Center for Ecoliteracy staffer, presented ideas for recipes that originated from the Center’s California Food for California Kids™ program. The OUSD team subsequently adapted these to be compliant with meal pattern regulations. The focus group identified the recipes they deemed most likely to be accepted, and student taste tests confirmed the final selections. These included Penne Pasta, Kung Pao Chicken with Bell Peppers, Lemon Oregano Roasted Chicken and Soba Noodles with Tofu and Bok Choy. With the initial recipes nailed down, OUSD Dietitian Joyce Peters, MS, RD, scheduled three mandatory paid professional development meetings (e.g. “training camps”) over the course of SY 2013-14; they were scheduled in October, January and April. At each, an estimated 70 school nutrition team members—specifically managers and cooks from each of the district’s 30 cooking kitchens, along with OUSD’s school nutrition field supervisors— received training on California Thursdays recipe preparation. Similar training will be held this year, and as Emmott notes, “Since this is the second year of the program, we’ve developed a wider range of menu items [that participants will prepare in training]. We’ll still focus on entreÅLes, but we’ve added sides and salads.” When the pilot was first launched, the special menu was offered only on a monthly basis, but by the end of the school year, California Thursdays was scheduled every week. For 2014-15, many of the latest recipes came out of a second focus group meeting held in April 2014. New suggestions included “comfort foods,” such as potato salad and a scratch-prepared chicken leg. Once again, the final recipe selections were fine-tuned and adapted for meal pattern compliance and sampled by students. Learning What Works Each training session runs about three or four hours, and two of these are held each day (one in the morning and one in the afternoon) in order to accommodate the sizable number of participants in this large school district. One session, on handling raw chicken, ran some six-and-a-half hours, as it necessitated a thorough food safety review. The first hour of each training session is generally a lecture, followed by a recipe demonstration and then hands-on time, during which participants prepare the recipe. If this seems like a lot of time to focus on a few recipes, it’s important to note that each training session is organized around a greater theme. These include planning and organization in the kitchen, recipe scaling and conversions, antibiotic uses in agriculture and knife skills. OUSD’s Emmott and Peters serve as the primary trainers, along with a staffer from the Center for Ecoliteracy. Instructors from Kitchen on Fire, an area cooking school provided the training for the knife skills session at its own facility. Leading two sessions in one day is fairly arduous, so if additional trainers are needed, Donnie Barclift, an OUSD field supervisor who runs the operation’s catering department, along with managers whom the trainers believe to be particularly strong, are asked to step in and assist. The OUSD trainers have found that rotation stations are an effective approach for the recipe preparation segment of the training. Participants are divided into small groups of 10 or fewer people, which gives everyone a chance to ask questions and get hands-on skills building. Another tip from Emmott is the value of using of a prep table with a mirrored top that allows a larger group of attendees to clearly follow along as culinary skills are demonstrated. The recipes that the participants perfect during the training sessions are designed to be prepped in the vast majority of OUSD’s cooking kitchens, although staff working at a few of the larger sites will need to scale up recipes. While OUSD staff who work at sites receiving satellite meals do not attend California Thursdays training sessions, LeBarre and her supervisory team demonstrate these recipes at monthly manager meetings, so that they can see how the food is prepared and remain informed about the operation’s initiatives. Empowered and Engaged LeBarre and Emmott are thrilled with how empowering the California Thursdays training camp program has been for OUSD school nutrition staff. “Cooks who used to be opening boxes are now preparing recipes,” reports LeBarre. Emmott is pleased by the enthusiasm of staff who send her photos of their culinary efforts, as well as notes affirming acceptance of the new items by student customers. The training sessions “have opened doors for a lot of staff,” LeBarre emphasizes, explaining that through their participation, staff members have developed relationships with colleagues from other schools. “They’re getting peer-topeer education that can be more meaningful than listening to me or a colleague [deliver a] PowerPoint presentation,” concurs Emmott. Inviting guest speakers to serve as instructors or holding a special training session at an offsite location such as a culinary school “shows employees that we care about their professional development,” states LeBarre. She and Emmott note, with well-deserved pride, that the professional chefs who have served as guest speakers have—high praise for the OUSD school nutrition team. Indeed, their reputation extends throughout the state. “At a recent California School Nutrition Association event, other attendees told our staff, ‘Wow, you work in Oakland. You’re doing great things!’ It was very powerful for them to hear that message from outside folks,” explains LeBarre. “Developing scratch-cooked recipes is hard work, so having an outside perspective is a good reminder for our staff that their work is valuable,” agrees Emmott. Expert Advice Contemplating introducing a similar program to complement your own farm-to-school initiatives? LeBarre and Emmott share some of the lessons they’ve learned. First, when getting started, remember that “you don’t have to do it all at once or the same way as someone else,” LeBarre states, noting that other districts should adapt the program based on what makes sense for their own operations. Recognize that there may be only so many days in the school year that are available to do this type of professional training, so don’t get too ambitious when considering a year-long program. Even for smaller districts with fewer staff to accommodate, Emmott recommends planning early in the summer for the upcoming school year—and even earlier, if you hope to secure grants or establish community partnerships. Employees in your operation may have varying levels of literacy, so make sure to keep this in mind when presenting information. Indeed, not everyone is a “paper” learner. Some employees may be visual learners, who absorb the concepts better when seeing images and hands-on demonstrations, rather than written instructions alone. LeBarre and Emmott admit that the first California Thursdays training session was “a bit chaotic and went over the time allotted.” But with more of these now under their collective belts, they’ve gotten a handle on setting an agenda with the “right” amount of material that realistically can be presented. One of the toughest challenges may be finding an appropriate facility for this type of three-part (lecture, demo, hands-on) training. If your facilities aren’t wellsuited, don’t despair—get creative instead! “Reach out to others in your community to see if they are able to donate space,” Emmott suggests. LeBarre believes that the same lessons that have proven valuable in her large district likely would apply to smaller districts. She advocates looking for a solid community partner, reaching outside of the district for help. Plus, she encourages her peers not to overlook the skills of leaders within your own rank and file to aid in providing training—“Sometimes we don’t think of that,” she admits. Go Grow! If you’re ready to take the next step with your farm-to-school efforts while also energizing and educating your staff, start brainstorming about the training options that might work best for your operation. Soon you and your team may discover that students are more excited than ever to try your fresh, healthy meals—talk about reaping a harvest! Cecily Walters is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore., and a former managing editor of this publication. Photographs courtesy of the Center for Ecoliteracy. SNAPSHOT • A “training camp” to teach culinary skills is an essential element of an innovative farm-to-school initiative. • Consider recruiting high performers among your managers to assist with training. • An added benefit: Staff gain peer-topeer education in these district-wide sessions. Resources & Recipes Recipes developed to support the California Thursdays™ farm-toschool project can be served from San Diego to San Jose—and from Miami, Fla., to Madison, Wis., and Moosetown, Mont. Learn more about the program and download free PDFs of various K-12 recipe compilations from the Center for Ecoliteracy at www.ecoliteracy.org. Check out Oakland Unified School District’s menus at www.ousd.k12.ca.us/mealmenus.
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