BY MELANIE BUCK –
Ouachita River School District has implemented a new system in their cafeteria that has students enjoying multiple choices and will also be a cost savings for the district. Superintendent Jerry Strasner said Chef Justin Mills of K-12 Culinary Connection, has been training cafeteria staff for the important transition that occurred on Wednesday, September 7.
With federal health guidelines that have changed over the last few years, schools are scrambling to find ways to feed their students foods that are healthy, but also that taste good. That challenge has been met by Chef Mills who spends his days training cafeteria workers on how to prepare his recipes that look good, taste good, and are healthy. “Hiring a full time chef is out of reach for most small districts in Arkansas. One option is to join forces with other districts and share a chef. Ouachita River School District is doing just that. We share Chef Justin with seven other districts,” said Rosalie Bates, Child Nutrition Director at ORSD.
Chef Mills previously worked for a management company that assisted schools in menus and purchasing. “It seemed to me that they just weren’t going after the smaller school districts and I saw a need for that so I wanted to give them the same type of benefits that bigger districts were getting,” he explained. Some of those benefits include buying power that allows the districts to purchase food at a bulk buy-down price, saving the school money.
Another benefit is providing healthy and tasty recipes, making the job of cafeteria staff a bit easier. “We have a dietician on staff that analyzes all the ingredients and makes sure the recipes and the menus meet with federal guidelines,” said Mills. “They have to make sure all the sodium requirements are met, that the students are getting enough whole grains. There’s a whole lot of stuff that no one ever sees that they [cafeteria workers] do and it’s really tough.”
Although Mills’ recipes are chalked full of healthy ingredients, by their taste, you wouldn’t guess it. On the first day his recipes were served at Acorn schools, the menu consisted of student’s choice of pizza and orange chicken, along with an all you can eat salad bar. “The pizza crust is made out of whole grains, as well as the breading on the chicken,” explained Mills. The orange chicken is baked, not fried, and served with brown rice, a healthier alternative to white rice. The pizza, on its whole grain crust, came with turkey pepperoni that tasted like ‘normal’ pepperoni and low-fat cheese. The students truly couldn’t tell the difference. And at the end of lunch, emptier trays were being brought up to wash than previously. Part of the hope is that students will choose to eat healthier at school, rather than bring their own lunch. “With the USDA nutrition standards, students don’t eat in the lunchroom like they use to,” said Bates. “We increase participation by having more choices. The students will have three choices daily,” said Mills.
The all you can eat salad bar is definitely a hit with students. “Students have to have a one-half cup of fruits and vegetables on their tray, according to guidelines,” said Mills. “We want to make sure they are getting that. With the salad bar, they have choices. They may not like broccoli, but they may like carrots. We want to offer them a variety on a daily basis.”
Mills also explained that his method is not an outsourced service. “I just consult and basically give them the tools they need and help them along. I don’t have any management responsibility over them at all. I just say, ‘this is how I would do it’ and if they want to do it that way, that’s what they do. They have my recipes and menus, access to me as a chef, and access to a registered dietician,” said Mills of the benefits that the school district reaps from his services. “We got the best of both worlds,” said Bates. “We still work for the school and keep our insurance and retirement, but we have the benefits of a food service company.”
Currently, K-12 Culinary Connection serves eight small school districts. Mills spends his days traveling between the districts, making sure everything is operating smoothly and gives tips. “I always think of ways to get the kids to participate. We do student surveys. We want to make sure the students like everything. They are our customers so we want to make sure they are enjoying what they are getting on a daily basis.”
Bates said, “Ouachita River School District hopes that having K-12 Culinary Connection here, that we are showing the students and their parents that we care about what we are serving them. We want to meet standards and at the same time, serve tasty food the kids will enjoy.”