Taste Sensation: Shaking up School Nutrition

On a frigid January morning a group of five staff at Gowanda Elementary School gathered in the cafeteria as custodial staff cleaned tables inside and snow gently fell outside. They had tools and instructions. And they were on a mission to get a project finished in the short window of opportunity between breakfast and lunch.

Working together amid several large cardboard boxes, in short order they assemble a large tower garden that GES won via an online contest sponsored by the Creating Healthy Schools & Communities in Cattaraugus County in October. Students in Pre-K through fourth-grade are about to join their peers at Gowanda Middle School in growing, reaping and serving their homegrown produce.

“Several students have complimented the quality and flavor of the produce that has been incorporated into the cafeteria salad bar,” noted GMS teacher Ryan Schwarzott,

who helps oversee the project. Middle-schoolers have harvested lettuce four times as of the first week of January along with several cucumbers and a crop of cherry tomatoes all destined for the school cafeteria salad bar.

HEALTHY APPETITES

A recent staggering uptick in meal participation at the Gowanda Central School District has surprised even cafeteria manager Amy Lineberger. With a background in culinary and management, she joined the district a few years ago armed with a discerning palate and a talent for stretching pennies to make hearty meals. She has lots of tricks up her sleeve when it comes to preparing food for the masses.

During the 2017-2018 academic year, breakfast sales increased a staggering 82% due in part to a new “Grab & Go” breakfast option where students select items from a mobile cart and enjoy their first meal of the day during homeroom.

“It’s an example of prioritizing learning by promoting healthy habits for lifelong nutrition and fitness,” says Lineberger, who notes there was an adjustment period when it came to students enjoying food in classrooms. Crumbs and spills are inevitable and inconvenient, but the payoff – well-fed, more alert students – is priceless.

“Our custodial and instructional staff have been wonderfully accommodating and understanding,” says Lineberger. “I think as it has become part of the routine the students are being more mindful and are making more an effort to be tidy and not make messes.”

Lunch sales have increased 11% due in part to creative menu offerings (General Tso’s Chicken, Taco Salad, Vegetable Lasagna, Goulash, Tater Tot Casserole, Honey Mustard Chicken, Chili) and the a fresh salad bar.

The robust enthusiasm for cafeteria food is attributable to a few things. Students are taking an active role in cultivating key ingredients has boosted the number of students eating cafeteria meals. They are encouraged to submit menu suggestions, requests, compliments and critiques.

“I really try to accommodate all the requests,” says Lineberger. “My budget doesn’t allow lobster or filet mignon, obviously, but I read every single suggestion the students submit with a goal of trying to incorporate their wants.”

New for the 2018-2019 academic year is a collaboration between the cafeteria department and local agriculture. Over the summer, locally grown and harvested foods including apples, kale and honey from Creekside Market in Collins were integrated into menu offerings. Every month a new fruit or vegetable is highlighted as a side dish – in January it is squash – and sampled by students.

Another factor affecting participation is the CEP designation (Community Eligibility Provision, a non-pricing meal service option for districts in low-income areas) for which the district was approved starting in the 2017-2018 academic year and which will be extended for the next three years.

During 2017-2018 the department served 100,746 breakfasts and 155,495 lunches to a district that educates approximately 1,200 students. That’s a lot of food.

Lineberger and her team of approximately 20 cafeteria workers oversee the tens of thousands of breakfasts, lunches and snacks each year. They start the day at 6:30 a.m. and often stay into the evenings to help cater student banquets, spaghetti and barbecue chicken fundraisers and other events.

“The food choices are always freshly prepared and presented in a professional manner,” says district technology integrator Ed Bugenhagen, who utilizes the Food Services & Nutrition Department for events. “Their support allows district clubs and activities to retain more profit than they would be able to earn if they had to utilize a caterer outside of our organization.”

TEMPTING TASTEBUDS

Whispers about the French dressing began during dinner at a recent football awards banquet held at Gowanda High School. The salad accompaniment was a hit and requests for the recipe eventually reached Lineberger. At work the next day, she scaled down the recipe – usually made by the gallon by staffers – to a manageable size so it could be made by home. She then arranged to share the coveted recipe on the district’s social media pages. (Recipe printed at the end of this story.)

Grown-up palates are one thing, but the taste buds of children can be notoriously sensitive. Finicky kids are nothing new, but as children mature sometimes their preferences do, too.

Junior Brooke Stanton, 18, is lactose intolerant but still she enjoys breakfast and lunch every single day in the Gowanda High School cafeteria. One of her favorite entrees is macaroni and cheese. She also appreciates the abundance of fresh fruit available daily.

“I don’t like to have anything too heavy in the morning or that causes heartburn, like sausage,” she says. “The smoothies are really great — they’re made with real fruit.”

Stanton thinks the wide variety of options available has made it easier for everyone to find something they like.

“Our cafeteria doesn’t put you in a position where you leave empty-handed,” says Stanton. “If you’re vegetarian, they have a great salad bar. Or you can get peanut butter and jelly. If you have diabetes, they have no-sugar-added fruit. If you’re on a diet, the portion sizes are controlled.”

Bugenhagen, who has Celiac disease, is also impressed with the cafeteria’s ability to meet customers’ specific dietary needs.

“It can be difficult to find food options at a restaurant,” says Bugenhagen. “But our cafeteria not only offers professional meal options on a daily basis to K-12 students and staff, but also connects with students of special dietary restrictions to provide options that can accommodate their individual needs. The staff is able to provide options free from cross-contamination and I am always appreciative of the time and dedication that these workers put into their jobs.”

Gowanda’s meal participation success comes despite some strict nutritional guidelines by which the cafeterias must abide. School meals now include more fruits, vegetables, and whole grain-rich foods. They serve only fat-free or low-fat milk and they “right-size” meals with portions designed for a child’s age. Overall, the meals contain less saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.

Special Education Director Janine Jalal almost always gets her lunch from the school cafeteria.

“When they introduced the salad bar a few years back I started getting lunch almost every day because if the daily entree wasn’t something I liked I could always just get a great salad,” she says. “I like when they try new healthy options. Last year that started roasting chicken that was still on the bone. They periodically have potato salad or pasta salad or salsa that you can tell is all made from scratch with ‘real’ ingredients.”

And the praise doesn’t end there.

“I am a big supporter of the cafeteria program and for many reasons,” said Sue Rebmann, payroll and benefits rep and co-director of Adult Education at GCS. “First, we employ local community members that give 100% to GCS. Besides doing a great job on preparing a lot of delicious meals, their customer service is top-notch. I have never had a lunch that I didn’t like.” Rebmann’s favorite dish is the Honey Mustard Chicken, but the Buffalo Pizza is a close top choice.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

So what’s next on the menu for the Food Services & Nutrition Department? The new After-School Snack Shack kicks off Feb. 4 at the high school cafeteria. A la carte items (pretzels, slushies, fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal bars, cold sandwiches, cheese sticks and more) will be sold from 2:15 p.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays. The effort is an attempt to accommodate hungry students and provide more options for ravenous athletes who are often seen pumping change into the healthy vending machines on campus.

“If it takes off and does well,” says Lineberger, who is hoping the sales will bolster her department’s budget. “I’d like to eventually incorporate some hot options like pizza and chicken sandwiches.”

All students and faculty are encouraged to participate. Items may be purchased through MySchool Bucks or with cash.

“Improving the health and nutrition of our students by providing nutritious meals is my top priority,” says Lineberger. “If I can do that while also making sure everyone is enjoying what they eat, then it’s a win for the whole district.”

MORE TO CHEW ON

Explore our menu offerings at Gowanda here. 

RECIPES

Tater-tot Casserole*

  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 pinch salt and ground black pepper to taste
  • 1 (10.75 ounce) can condensed cream of mushroom soup
  • 2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese
  • 2 cups favorite mix of frozen vegetables example (Peas, Corn, Carrots, Green Beans, Broccoli)
  • 1 (16 ounce) package frozen tater tots

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  2. Cook and stir ground beef in a large skillet over medium heat until no longer pink and completely browned, 7 to 10 minutes; season with salt and black pepper.
  3. Stir cream of mushroom soup into the cooked ground beef; pour the mixture into a 9×13-inch baking dish.
  4. Mix in frozen vegetables.
  5. Layer tater tots evenly over the ground beef mixture; top with Cheddar cheese.
  6. Bake until tater tots are golden brown and hot, 30 to 45 minutes.

French Dressing (makes 16 two-ounce servings)

¼ cup honey

1 cup vegetable oil

1 cup cider vinegar

1/2 cup ketchup

2 tablespoons tomato paste

¾ cup sugar

1 tablespoons salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

¾ teaspoon paprika

Directions:

  1. Pour liquid into large mixing bowl
  2. Add dry ingredients
  3. Mix on low speed with whisk ­

*Recipes courtesy of the Gowanda Food Services and Nutrition Department.

 

 

 

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