Ann spoke at the National Farm to Cafeteria Conference in Burlington, Vermont August 4, 2012, where she met Janet Poppendieck, pictured here on the left, the author of “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America” (University of California Press, 2010) and among other titles such as “Sweet Charity” and “Bread Lines Knee Deep in Wheat”. Janet has agreed to write a guest blog for “Who’s Cooking School Lunch?” in the near future.
Ann’s speech follows, which she delivered as a part of a panel on COOKING SEASONAL FOODS: PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT FOR FOOD SERVICE STAFF, with Moderator: Gail Feenstra, Food Systems Coordinator at University of California Sustainable Agriculture, Research and Education Program and Panelists: Kathy Alexander, School Nutrition Association, Vermont President and food service director; Amy Winston: NE Regional Lead Agency, national Farm to School Network, Real Food Institute of MidCoast Maine; Ann M. Evans, Principal, Evans & Brennan, Food Systems Consultants and co-author of “Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools” (2011, Center for Ecoliteracy)
With my business partner, Georgeanne Brennan, who has run a cooking school in France and California, I teach school districts how to incorporate scratch cooking into the food they serve. We offer cooking schools for school food service.
We do this because school districts represent a strategic opportunity to change food culture in the United States; they are often the largest restaurant in their community – certainly, in Los Angeles, no other entity is serving 650,000 meals a day.
Based on four years of these classes, we developed a philosophy for adult education with school food service that worked in two diverse school districts in northern California: in Davis, a university town with a school district of about 8,000, and in Oakland, a port city with a school district with 32,000 students.
- School food service employees not only know how to cook, they are good cooks. They are men and women who have raised or are raising a family and have been putting a meal on the table every night for years.
- Adults learn by doing – tactile and experiential learning work best.
- Adults need a framework to help them reorganize what they already know so they can remember.
We developed that framework, and called it 6-5-4 and used it as well as the above philosophy to write a book and set of recipes called “Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools,” which was published by the Center for Ecoliteracy in 2011 as a part of a suite of resources in its signature and internationally known program “Rethinking School Lunch.”
During my time with you today, I’m going to cover the role of professional development as part of the solution to manifesting an ideal school meal.
My ideal school meal is that it reflects the season, the geography and the history of the place. You know if you’re having school lunch in Michigan, or California, or Vermont.
It supports the local agricultural economy. Professionals process foods in-house, making stock, salad dressings, bakery items, and sauces such as pesto and tomato; professionals who are paid a living wage with benefits.
The kitchens have pantries stocked with real food. Stoves are used for more than table tops, the Hobart mixers are dusted off and used, spice grinders and citrus cutters fill the air with scents of orange and cumin.
The 6-5-4 framework is easy: Six foods kids know and love…pizza, wraps, soups, rice bowls, salads, and pasta – because if you are introducing new foods, it might as well come in a familiar package. Pizza in fall with Butternut Squash, Walnuts and Chard is still pizza for lunch.
Five flavor profiles that represent some of the world’s greatest cuisines, and as well the history of immigration in California – Latin American; African American; Indian-Middle Eastern; Asian; and European-Mediterranean.
Other consultants provide professional development on the new USDA regulations, knife skills, production cooking and so forth, all valuable and essential. We present professional development by having the food service staff cook.
We teach the five flavor profiles, as they change throughout the 4 seasons, using the six dishes kids know and love. By teaching, I mean we conduct a cooking class with a district’s food service in the afternoon for 3 hours or for a three-day period.
Here’s what happens. The school food service workers assemble around a table in a teaching kitchen or central kitchen, we present for 5-10 minutes a flavor profile using a flavor profile tray – which has the key spices, herbs, foods represented – so they can literally see it – and if there is a member of that ethnic community, we invite them up to be our “expert.” They go over the ingredients again as they like, talking about how they use them in daily cooking. We ask, “What are we missing?” And they usually have a few suggestions for us.
Then, it’s time to cook. We review the recipes – a group of 12-16 people can cook 8-10 recipes in 2 hours easily. They choose a partner to cook with a select the recipe they want to cook.
The ingredients are already purchased – we send a shopping list ahead once the recipes are worked out with the food service director. The participants take a tray and gather all their ingredients, often learning the ingredients right then for the first time, but not being told by a talking head – searching it out themselves, asking a colleague or asking us.
We go around to each team while they are cooking and answer questions, engage with them and explore what they already know or want to know.
When they are done cooking their dishes – all in one flavor profile as in the case above, or sometimes featuring a specific ingredient such as California Extra Virgin Olive Oil, or featuring one of the six dishes, such as salads (grains and greens) and house-made dressings across the five flavor profiles – they plate them out.
Everyone gathers around the table with these family size servings of high flavor dishes kids know and love – plated out on white platters if possible with garnish and a serving spoon – and then each team presents. What ingredients did they use, how did they cook it, did they taste it, do they like it, were there any problems.
One food service director told us during this portion of the class, “This is the first time I’ve ever heard my people speak in public, in fact, I think it may be the first time some of them ever have spoken in public.” And we know that to be true – but we don’t give a lecture on how to speak in public – they learn by doing and by watching their colleagues.
That same food service director, after we had the employees name the dry beans they cook at home and there were over 20 varietals, asked one of her employees, who had said she makes hummus from garbanzo beans, “what do you do?” The employee looked at her and said, “I soak them in water the night before.” The director said, “Oh, and then what?” The employee looked at her and said, “I cook them in water the next day.” The exchange was the first of its kind between them, and they sorted out that that employee would be making house-made hummus for the school district from dry beans.
After the presentation on the dishes, we serve ourselves a taste of each and sit down together to eat – usually in silence for the first 5 minutes as we are all so hungry and it is so good. Then we conduct a discussion of how they like the dishes, and whether they think the dishes would work at the elementary and or secondary levels, what might need to be modified – how they could serve it on the line, and so forth.
As Chef Stu from Yale mentioned to me yesterday, “cooking from scratch in this way provides a sense of ownership, they are not cogs in a wheel.”
So that’s the micro version. The book that we wrote, “Cooking with California Food in K-12 Schools” is free, downloadable in English and Spanish, from the Center for Ecoliteracy website. And you can use it, of course, with your own state’s food.
Jennifer LeBarre, Oakland Unified School District’s Food Service Director has brought us in to provide cooking lessons to her staff, as part of the extensive work the Center for Ecoliteracy is partnering with her to recreate school lunch in Oakland. We caught up with her in February of this year to interview her for a new blog we’ve launched called – Who’s Cooking School Lunch – which tells the fascinating stories of the men and women behind the scenes who work hard to get those millions of meals to the school tables –
Jennifer told us, “One of the most powerful things about the cooking lessons is that they showed us that our staff isn’t undertrained, they are underutilized. That’s the biggest thing. You have the perception that they don’t know how to cook because they are not cooking, but you’ve created that environment.”
She said, “The cooking classes told us how skilled they are and told our employees that we believe in them and that we care about them. No matter how good you are you can always do better. Give them more training and introduce them to new things. That wonderful arrangement of citrus at our first class – so many didn’t know – kumquat, pomelo. Now we’ve exposed them to the different varietals of these fruits and vegetables, they are more comfortable serving them.
We know that as the employees become more self-assured they extend that to more influence on the menu. In San Rafael, CA we recently did a three-day training, and the food service director asked her staff to choose one of the over 60 recipes they made, that they want to see on the menu this fall.
And note that every time a recipe is used, we carefully go over what can come from the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service commodity program.
One more testimony – this one from Darryl W. Graves from Los Angeles Unified School District. He’s originally from Mississippi – he’s done fast food, fine dining, hospitals – and proudly told us he was the only student at Jackson State cooking – batch cooking for a college. His mother had a store next door to their house with pralines and cakes
We taught cooking lessons for two days with a group from LA, in Darryl’s kitchen where the Deputy Food Service Director, now the Interim director, David Binkle, had to go out and buy pots and pans and some knives just to be able to conduct class – which focused on incorporating California Extra Virgin Olive Oil into soups, salads, and entrée items. Afterwards, Darryl told us, “class is really good because you get exposure to different ways of doing things. I’m a firm believer in cooking healthy.”
In closing, I want to let you know what Davis Joint Unified School District is doing, and what you can do in your regions.
Again, with many partners, including UCSAREP, we worked with the school food service over a four-year period of hands-on cooking in Davis. We took them on a “chef’s walk” with other regional chefs through our local farmers market in their chef whites (which Rafaelita Curva, Director of Nutrition Services at Davis bought them for the occasion) to see what was in season and get ideas of what to cook with it, followed by a lunch and a farm tour, we engaged them with a “show not tell” marketing strategy where they cater Chamber of Commerce luncheons with the school lunch for that day, or side by side of restaurants, serve up school soups such as the Asian Coconut Mandarin or Latin American Albondigas and entrees such as the Moroccan 7-Vegetable Tagine over Couscous served that day for lunch, and served again to a fundraiser for the community that night.
What can you do in your state/region? Here are a few tested ideas:
- Design and create a regional school lunch menu based on what you grow;
- Start a school lunch booster club, district-wide, that can raise funds to bring cooking lessons into your district and take the school food service to the farms;
- Connect your school food service with the local farmers market and networks of chefs;
- Take on the role of a “forager” for food service, introducing them to local farmers or providing the central kitchen with a CSA box they can experiment with;
- Bring in professional development for your school food service or take them to your local university’s kitchen to work with their chefs.
In conclusion, why provide this kind of professional development, cooking lessons that are focused on food and flavors, using self-discovery and hands-on methods? Because it jumpstarts the process of changing the menu from the inside out, providing an experiential way to empower the hands, hearts, and minds of those putting the food on the lunch table every day. That to me is sustainable, a long-term investment in changing the culture of food in the United States.
Stay tuned on Who’s Cooking School Lunch for more updates.