Stepping their game up: RSS nutrition managers hone skills in workshop

Published 10:23 pm Thursday, June 15, 2023

ROCKWELL — The menu items many remember from the lunch trays in school are becoming a thing of the past in Rowan County, thanks to a collaborative workshop the school district hosted with the state.

The N.C. K-12 Culinary Institute workshop in Rowan County was attended by numerous school nutrition managers from the Rowan-Salisbury School and nearby school districts.

The institute was developed by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Office of School Nutrition, in cooperation with a team of registered dietitians and chefs, to increase the availability of fresh, appealing and nutritious meals at school.

“Appealing meals that are filling and nutritious help students focus,” said Dr. Lynn Harvey, senior director of NCDPI’s Office of School Nutrition. “The North Carolina K-12 Culinary Institute provides school nutrition managers with tools and information they can take back and implement in their School Nutrition Programs to ensure students receive the meals they need to succeed in and out of the classroom.”

The Office of School Nutrition worked with chef Cyndie Story and the K-12 Culinary Team in developing the institute to meet five core objectives:

  • Improve student health, well-being, and academic success through nutritious, appealing meals at school
  • Increase participation in high-quality, enticing School Nutrition Programs
  • Expand the capacity of local school nutrition programs to purchase, prepare and serve fresh, locally-grown produce
  • Increase consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain-rich foods
  • Provide continuing education opportunities for School Nutrition personnel

“We have descended upon North Carolina to teach culinary skills,” Story said.

Over 200 new recipes, like Banh Mi flatbread, chilaquiles, chipotle grilled chicken salad and cheesy potato with vegetarian chili, have been developed for school meals in North Carolina, featuring whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, and locally-grown ingredients. 

The menus and recipes developed for N.C. K-12 Culinary Institute includes scratch, convenience, and modified scratch products and techniques, instructions written for production amounts consistent with pack or pan sizes commonly available in school kitchens, and nutritional analysis files for easy import into software programs and adjustments for standardization in schools and districts.

The institute’s three-day workshops for school nutrition managers include interactive classroom and in-kitchen instruction. 

“You don’t just come in and learn a couple of things then go home,” said Katrina Perry, a professional development coordinator with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. “This is an intensive hands-on workshop that takes them from that introduction on day one to that final day three. It’s building their confidence as well as their knowledge.”

According to Rowan-Salisbury Schools Director of Food Nutrition Lisa Altmann, Perry reached out about two to three months ago looking for host countries for the workshops. 

“I am very passionate about this program,” Altmann said. “I have attended it. All of our managers have attended it, and it has made a huge difference.”

Planned instructional segments cover topics such as knife skills, weighing and measuring accurately, preparing foods for just-in-time service, work simplification and scheduling, effective use of equipment, and quality food preparation and service for various meats, grains, fruits, vegetables, and condiments. In addition, merchandising, marketing, and nutrition education best practices are addressed.

The workshop aims to address numerous shortfalls that emerged due to staffing shortages caused during the pandemic. 

“Staffing has been a major issue during the pandemic across our state,” Perry said. “How do you prepare high-quality food in a short amount of time for a large number of kids? I think that is the biggest problem. The benefit of this workshop is that they are learning efficiency skills, time management and how to work schedules to make things easier and quicker.”

Hardly shortcuts but instead enhanced techniques lend themselves to the final food product. 

“The recipes from this workshop are being incorporated into the school nutrition programs, which helps get away from that packaged process thing we saw during the pandemic,” Perry said. “Now that things are settling down a little bit going back to that homemade-from-scratch cooking that people love and enjoy.”

Perry explained that the workshop takes USDA nutrition standards into consideration when developing the recipes.

“This workshop focuses on preparation with as many fresh ingredients as possible to maximize taste, quality and nutrition as well while meeting those standards for our programs,” Perry said.

Altmann added, “We learn how to implement different spices and herbs to offset the sodium restrictions that we have. It is amazing what you can do if you stop, pay attention and use these work simplification techniques.

As an example, Altmann pointed to a sectionizer that the class was training with.  

“[With] that piece of equipment, you can cut 50 pounds of potatoes in about 20 minutes,” Altmann said. 

School lunch choices have come a long way. 

“You still hear those people, some are still teaching, and talk about the yeast rolls and big cinnamon rolls,” Altmann said. “We still have those things, but they are probably not the size they were back then. In our district, we try to keep home-cooked meals at the center of the plate. 

“We try to focus on the chicken pot pie, the baked ziti, or Salisbury steak, which comes with traditional vegetables. A lot of kids these days don’t see those at home. People are so busy, and it’s just easier to stop at a fast food restaurant. We try to keep it in this district focused on fresh produce.”

By using lessons and resources learned during the institutes, the ambassadors are charged with teaching skills during the workshops to other school nutrition professionals at the local district or school level. 

Equipping school nutrition professionals with equipment, educational resources and skills can positively impact the preparation, service, and consumption of school meals.

“This institute is such a great way we can share information and best practices with school nutrition leaders while creating a learning environment that emphasizes hands-on instruction and skills practice,” State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said. “Graduating participants will leave these workshops knowing how to prepare nutritious meals for North Carolina’s students to continue growing and thriving both in and outside of the classroom.”

With support from the Farm to School Coalition of North Carolina, N.C. State University (NCSU) Cooperative Extension, Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, the NCDPI, the Office of School Nutrition and the K-12 Culinary Team are working with local public schools and districts to offer N.C. K-12 Culinary Institute workshops this summer from June through August.