By Melissa Reichley 2017-01-31 22:40:57
Innovative initiatives raise the bar Tapping Your Local Culinary Community IF THERE IS ONE TRUTH THAT APPLIES ALL ACROSS THE SCHOOL NUTRITION SPECTRUM, it’s that partnerships elevate school meal programs. Period. The failure to seize opportunities to collaborate is a failure of imagination. Fortunately for the children and families served by the Culinary and Nutrition Services department of Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), Director Bertrand Weber has no shortage of imagination and, in fact, has raised the bar on how to leverage partnerships in this profession. Back in 2013, Weber reached out to the “who’s who” of Twin Cities chefs and restaurant owners to come up with ways to reimagine school lunches. He wasn’t sure what sort of response to expect. “I basically explained I was looking to partner with local chefs and I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. I explained we were getting back to basics, eliminating processed foods, wanting to go farm to table and installing kitchens in schools,” he recollects. After three hours of brainstorming, Weber and a group of nearly 30 local restaurant owners, chefs and fellow foodies had a plan. The True Food Chef Council was born. Now, more than three years, 67 new salad bar carts, 20 new recipes, a 60% increase in school meal participation and $100,000 raised in support of related initiatives later, Weber and his partners agree the True Food Chef Council model is something other schools might want to try. “It’s a great partnership,” says Weber. The school district is “truly part of the local food community now, and we’re respected by the restaurants.” The Basics Weber characterizes the True Food Chef Council (TFCC) as the community engagement component of his efforts to make over the school meals program at MPS. TFCC members, from all across the Twin Cities restaurant and culinary community, promote and endorse the school district’s commitment to scratch cooking, food integrity, local food and healthy eating in a number of ways: » hosting fundraisers to help MPS purchase salad bars and other supplies in support of healthier eating; » creating and endorsing new recipes for schools http://nutritionservices.mpls.k12.mn.us/recipes; » engaging directly with students in lunchrooms via True Food Taste Tests http://nutritionservices.mpls.k12.mn.us/tftt, and special events such as a Junior Iron Chef competition; and » raising awareness about the positive changes to school meals. Not sure about how to go about approaching restaurateurs and chefs in your community? Weber offers suggestions toward the end of this article. For now, let’s dive a little deeper into some of the projects such a group can help facilitate. Fundraising for Salad Bars The initial push to fundraise for the purchase of salad bars only took a couple months, says Weber, with each TFCC partner agreeing to participate in some way. Many donated a percentage of certain menu items. Others encouraged patrons to add a directed donation on top of their bill. “It was up to them to do what they wanted to do,” explains Weber. For example, TFCC founding member, Tracy Singleton, owner of the longtime Minneapolis farm-to-table staple Birchwood Café, donated $2 from every salad purchased by restaurant patrons toward purchasing a salad bar for a neighborhood school. An additional sign, posted at the restaurant’s cash register for one month in 2013 encouraged patrons to go further: “Rounding up on your bill today supports the Seward Montessori School in acquiring a salad bar for healthy school lunches!” The Birchwood’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages also announced their efforts. In addition to efforts by individual TFCC restaurant partners, a dozen TFCC partner restaurants participated in a high-end “Knead the Dough” group fundraiser. For $100 per ticket, Twin City area diners were invited to the Minneapolis Women’s Club to sample dishes from True Food Chef Council restaurant partners. “One salad bar costs about $10,000... In our first year, we raised over $50k for five salad bars,” reports Weber. At present, through the efforts of TCFF fundraisers and other grants and donations, MPS has installed 67 market cart salad bars at 52 sites. A second Chef Council founding member, Director of Community Relations and Giving Ash Reynolds from the Alma Group, was inspired by to go even further. At Restaurant Alma, whose James Beard-award winning chef Alex Roberts brings true star-power to the table, $1 from every three-course tasting menu is donated to a nonprofit organization, explains Reynolds. At its Brasa Rotisserie, 50 cents from every piece sold of their popular cornbread is designated to a nonprofit. “We didn’t start this donation program in our restaurants until the True Food Chef Council came around,” explains Reynolds. “The Council opened our minds to the impact we could have on our food community.” Now, twice a year, the Alma Group earmarks donations among many local beneficiary organizations. Recipes to Go The other piece of the initial TFCC plan was asking partner restaurants to share or develop recipes for MPS. “Oftentimes, I’d go to restaurants to see what they were making and what we could put on our menus,” recounts Weber. The first restaurant to offer a recipe application for the MPS salad bars was the Birchwood Café, with its Three-Bean Salad. “We used our logo [to promote] Birchwood Bean Salad,” says Singleton. “It’s been so fun hearing from customers that their kids were trying our salads in school.” Asking local chefs to lend their brands and to develop recipes to get kids to eat more healthy foods sends a strong message to the community, notes Singleton. Involving well-known local chefs and restaurants in school nutrition programs heightens the profiles of both partners in the school-restaurant connection. Not only are the kids learning to try new foods and menu items, but when parents see school menus featuring familiar, restaurant-branded recipes, it calls their attention to the positive changes happening in school cafeterias. One secret to success, they all agree, is that it helps to find partners who have children enrolled in MPS schools. For example, Birchwood Café owner Singleton’s daughter attends a local MPS elementary, and all three of the Alma Group’s Chef Roberts’ children attend MPS schools. The True Food Taste Tests In November 2016, nearly four dozen MPS schools introduced their students to Manoomin (the Ojibwe term for “wild rice”) Salad. It was the latest in a growing list of recipes that TFCC chefs and restaurants have shared with the MPS school nutrition team in an effort to help children become more adventurous eaters. But these items aren’t just rolled onto the menu. Instead they are given a spotlight in adjunct taste test events that often feature the chefs, creating buzz and shining a light on the positive changes happening in the cafeteria. The True Food Taste Test formula works like this: Three times a year (generally November, January and March), after students have finished their lunches, volunteers distribute small samples of a new dish. Taste testers are asked to think about the dish beyond the conventional “like” or “dislike” response. Prompts include: » Do you recognize the ingredients? » What colors do you see? » What flavors do you taste? Sweet? Tangy? Sour? Spicy? » What was the texture like? Mushy? Soft? Grainy? Smooth? “We do it more to expand the students’ palates than to see if an item works. But if it’s really awesome or popular, we put it on the school menu,” explains Weber. For each taste test, there’s a resource kit to help MPS staff and volunteers manage the event at individual school sites. It includes the recipe, a poster, outreach language, plus fun facts about the recipe’s history or ingredients. For example, wild rice is Minnesota’s official state grain. All those who participate in the taste tests get a cool True Food Taste Test sticker for their bravery. To see all the elements, visit http://nutritionservices.mpls.k12.mn.us/tftt. Promotional materials and supplies are funded, in part, by a local cooperative. In SY 2015-16, some 43,500 samples of three recipes were tested at 44 schools. Roughly 50% of all MPS students participated in the tasting, which featured assistance from 15 True Food Chef Council members. Planning for the taste tests is handled by MPS Culinary & Wellness Services, the lunchroom manager at each school and an additional point person, often Reynolds, to help coordinate. “I love walking into school and hearing the kids say, ‘Oh, look, it’s the Taste Test Lady’!” says Reynolds. Additional adult volunteers are helpful not only for event coordination, but to capitalize on the community engagement aspect of the project. These include teachers, staff, parents, employees of TFCC restaurants and others. The idea was to get chefs into schools, notes Weber. It certainly has done that! “Some of the restaurants have brought as many as 10 of their employees along to volunteer!” “The cross-promotion is really cool,” adds Weber. “When we have taste tests, the chefs tweet about it and put it on Facebook with pictures of the food.” The MPS/TFCC web pages have a slew of great resources, videos, and recipes that are open to any school district seeking to follow this model. Junior Iron Chef Competition In 2015, the True Food Chef Council invited its members to take part in a new event: The Junior Iron Chef competition. The TFCC paired essay-winning middle school students with a Minneapolis chef to a classic cook-off challenge. The 2015 event generated a winning Turkey Chili recipe that is now on MPS menus. And more students—and local chefs—were eager to apply for the 2016 competition, which had to be moved to a larger space to accommodate nearly 300 onlookers! “It was so cool just to watch the kids alongside the chefs, tasting, talking about flavor profiles and seeing the chefs reinforce basic lessons like knife skills and cleaning up as you go,” recounts Reynolds. Results, Lessons Learned and Next Steps Weber and his partners tout many accomplishments of the True Food Chef Council. The MPS school nutrition program has received positive feedback “that we absolutely would not have gotten in the past,” asserts Weber. The MPS revenue base has grown from $14.5 million in SY 2011-12 to an expected $23 million in SY 2016-17. The partnership has been a good reflection on the participating restaurateurs, too. “I was surprised by what it’s meant to parents,” says Singleton, who has received emails and complimentary comments from patrons excited to see Birchwood items on the school menu. Reynolds recommends that any school district that decides to try this model include a p.r. coordinator and/or spokesperson in its plans. “I talk to PTAs...and I probably have the most contact now with restaurants and chefs,” says Reynolds. Media outreach is a key component of success. When she learns a TFCC member will be on TV or giving an interview for any reason, she encourages him or her to mention the True Food Chef Council. To school nutrition directors interested in developing a similar program in their community, Weber’s advice is simple: Don’t be intimidated. That said, if all you’re serving is standard kid fare, such as chicken nuggets and pizza, don’t bother reaching out to the restaurant community for help in promoting your program, he cautions. You need to show them that you’re serious about leveraging the culinary expertise and assistance that they can provide. Chefs are kind of like rock stars for today’s kids, adds Singleton. “Right now, we want to keep doing what we’re doing and get more chefs into schools in their chef coats—whatever it takes to get kids to try new things and be open-minded about food.” At a recent TFCC meeting, participants talked about how to get more people involved, so every MPS school can have an Adopt-a-School chef as a partner. “There are more schools than chefs, so we’re trying to get more chefs engaged,” notes Singleton. “I absolutely believe every school district should try this,” avers Reynolds. Melissa Reichley is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
Published by School Nutrition Association. View All Articles.
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