With the new Federal Nutrient Guidelines for school meals, Stephanie Britt, Lincoln County Schools nutrition director and dietician, realized that the cafeteria staffs in each school would have to learn new meal preparation methods, how to use new food ingredients and learn some new ways to use familiar foods.
“Which all translated into a return to more scratch cooking and using less processed foods,” explained Britt. “It started for me when I was accepted into TSNA’s Culinary Academy where I spent a week being taught the use of spices, advanced food preparation and handling and a lot of scratch cooking,” Britt said.
She enlisted the assistance of Chef Anthony Terrell, culinary specialist for Shelby County Schools, Memphis, to come to Lincoln County and provide hands-on training with the cafeteria ladies here.
During the month of July, the cafeteria staff from Lincoln County Schools and Fayetteville City Schools had a one- and one-half day workshop at South Lincoln School.
“The ladies enjoy hands-on types of workshops, as they seem to get so much more out of them, and Chef T is an excellent trainer, because he would demonstrate the techniques and then watch the ladies perform the tasks,” Britt said.
“The students attending the Summer Program at South Lincoln served as our student taste testers, and there were a lot of cleaned plates and requests to meet the chef!
“With the federal guidelines satisfied and in upgrading our menus with new items, we set ourselves to the task of changing our focus from the guidelines to the foods so we also planned ways to market our programs.”
The cafeteria transformation began with referring to those they serve as their “customers” rather than students, teachers and staff.
“We concentrated on presentation of our foods because it all has to first look good and smell good in order to entice customers into our serving lines,” she said.
Once they get into the serving line, the food has to taste good, as satisfied customers become repeat customers.
“We have also expanded our offerings to include more meal choices. A favorite has been the ‘Grab and Go’ lines which feature old standards like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, pimento cheese and crackers, low-fat nachos, fresh fruit and vegetable plates and meal salads everyday,” she explained.
“We have not yet identified a favorite food of our customers – everything has been positive thus far.”
A method that helps the cafeteria staff decide what new recipes to try is Lunch with the Principal.
Lunch with the Principal is a concept that was first introduced by Jim Stewart, former principal at Lincoln County High School, and Marge Walker, former LCHS cafeteria manager.
“It was a really good idea that somehow fell by the wayside that we decided to resume to use as a vehicle for the principal at each school to reward a group of students, chosen according to their own criteria, and for us in school nutrition to have an audience to sample and critique our new menu offerings before menuing them for all students and for our LCHS Culinary Arts 2 and 3 students to gain some real-world experiences in food preparation.”
The cafeteria’s first event at Lincoln County High School was a win-win-win experience for all involved. The second event was at South Lincoln Elementary School, and a holiday event is planned at Lincoln County High School.
“We are also in the planning stages for our January event at Ninth Grade Academy.”
Many people don’t realize just how highly trained school food service employees must be.
“All of our ladies, with the exception of four or five of our newest employees, are School Nutrition Association Level One Certified, which means that they have successfully completed courses in Food Safety and Nutrition. About one-third of our ladies are also ServSafe Certified, the National Restaurant Association’s Food safety and sanitation course, which requires 1.5 days of instruction and passing a proctored standardized test,” Britt explained.
Britt has an education specialist degree in administration and supervision and is a registered dietitian. She is also a school nutrition specialist, an SNA certified trainer and she is both ServSafe certified and is a ServSafe instructor.
“So we all must attend continuing education events every year just to maintain our certifications. For any of my ladies to refer to themselves as ‘just a cook’ or ‘just a cafeteria worker’ is selling themselves short, and I am working to get them to think of themselves and to see themselves as I see them – a highly trained and motivated group of school nutrition professionals,” Britt explained.
To further their professional development as food service employees, they have had team building activities.
“One characteristic of a team is a uniform, thus our upgrade by wearing uniforms in all cafeterias, and yes, everyone will be wearing the same outfits on the same days, including me,” she said.
In addition to the cook’s shirt, the cafeteria workers will be wearing chef/cooks hats this year for additional food safety and to finish out the professional outfits. Fridays are School Pride Days, and the ladies wear shirts in school colors or with mascots or school club shirts and hats with a school insignia on them.
“These changes have really been about embracing the new guidelines and realizing their/our importance in the educational process and about teaching the students, through example, about healthy food choices.
“So we have had to get the old stereotypical ‘lunch lady’ out of our kitchens as well as out of our heads.”