Madison County Schools food service has cooked up a new approach to cafeteria food this year, and it is betting on an unusual food group to bring them success. Vegetables — and their slightly sweeter cousins — fruit.
Usually considered the bane of all school children, fresh vegetables will be the highlight of this year's school menus.
Packed with essential vitamins and minerals and armed with disease-fighting phytochemicals, it's no wonder doctors and our mothers have constantly nagged us to eat our veggies and why it is high on the list of priorities for Madison County Food Service Director Scott Anderson.
"It will be the year of the veggie," he said with a smile while discussing food service's new approach. "They are so essential to a healthy diet that we cannot afford to ignore them. Many studies have shown how important it is for everyone, especially children who are growing, to eat enough fruits and vegetables. It is our job to provide healthy and nutritious meals for our students and incorporating more fresh fruits and vegetables is part of that mission."
Anderson said he got the idea after Madison County school cafeterias included cauliflower on the menu for the first time last year. He said many kids asked the staff how they "turned broccoli white."
"We realized that a lot of our students had never seen cauliflower before," he said. "Never mind, trying to eat it. You can't eat what you don't know is out there."
But how do you make tomatoes, cucumbers and squash appealing — especially for tastebuds accustomed to chocolate, mac-and-cheese and chicken nuggets?
Anderson lamented that he already struggles with complaints about the chicken nuggets the cafeteria serves.
"You can't explain it to a kid, but the quality of chicken nugget they are getting from us is far superior to what they can get from a lot of local restaurants. We have higher standards," Anderson said with a shrug.
So if you can't compete with McDonald's for children's food loyalty, what is a food service director, limited by strict federal school nutrition guidelines and a lack of free plastic toys, to do?
Anderson, who has a background in academics, where he served in numerous roles as an educator and principal before taking over the school system's ailing food service department, said he never understood why school cafeterias were considered apart from the education of students.
"We are all here for the same reason — we want to help our students succeed — and everyone has a role in that," he said. "It doesn't have to mean that only teachers carry that responsibility. Our food service employees have a lot of knowledge and valuable skills they can share."
Anderson said he encourages his employees to find ways to work alongside teachers in classrooms and partner for unique learning projects. Past partnerships have come in the form of marketing projects for new cafeteria items and life skills lessons in budgeting, cooking and meal planning.
These projects relied on coordination and investment and Anderson said he hopes to do the same with vegetables this year. The more students learn about where there food comes from, the sheer volume of variety of vegetables and the many ways they can be consumed, the more likely they are to try them.
The food service director said with the past success of these partnerships, he wanted to raise the bar this year for vegetables which led him to the source for answers and knowledge of all things edible — farmers.
"You can't make kids like vegetables or be interested if the first thing they try is days-old and awful," Anderson said. "The idea is to provide them with high quality, fresh food. We want them to have the best."
With that in mind, Anderson spent months combing Madison and nearby counties talking with and visiting local farmers who might be interested in a partnership with the school system.
A total of five farmers — Overman's, Honeykut, Dragon Hollow Farm, Southfork Farms and Lazy Eight Stock Farm — agreed to supply the school system with a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables while maintaining strict growing guidelines.
In addition to the produce farmers, the school system's food service will also be partnering with another farmer who will provide fresh sausage to the schools' menus.
Anderson said he chose to work with small and mostly local growers in order to make sure that products are as fresh as possible and communication is easier.
In the past, Anderson said, food service would have to rely on big trucks to deliver food in mostly large quantities that were shipped from long distances. The arrangement led to storage conflicts, and therefore more energy usage, and a less-than-fresh taste.
"I wanted small farmers," Anderson said. "I wanted to be able to walk with them in their fields and see the produce for myself. I don't want our students to have preservatives, hormones or a lot of chemicals in their food. All the farmers we work with have strict spraying and other guidelines they have to adhere to."
Working with local farmers has the added bonus of tailoring orders as needed and giving the growers opportunities to visit schools.
Babette S. Overman, of Overman's Farm, said the arrangement has been "absolutely fabolous" and was excited to do tomato tastings with students over the summer.
Overman said she was delighted to show students a variety of cherry tomatoes and teach them about her crop.
"They were fascinated," she said of the students' reactions to tomatoes outside their traditional red appearance. "They had no idea tomatoes could be anything but red. We have yellow, green and purple tomatoes and they all taste different."
The farmer said she was pleased to prove some young tomato-haters wrong when they said they didn't like the taste.
Anderson and Overman said the tastings proved what both already knew — variety is the spice of life.
"We have 12,000 students we have to feed and they all have different tastes. Not everyone is going to like the same thing. That is why its important to have variety and get them involved with designing their meal the way they like it," Anderson said.
The food service director said, with that in mind, school cafeterias will also be amping up the availability of sauces and spices for students to flavor their meals.
Overman said the tastings also served as an opportunity to see what the likes and dislikes of her new often picky clients might be.
"It helps me, because I now know what to spend my time growing," she said. "I'm not going to waste a field on something that they will not eat."
The farmer also noted the added bonus of a partnership with the schools besides creating a more nutritious and fresh menu for students. Overman said it has doubled the size of some of the farms involved and that Overman's Farm is looking for more acres as well.
Overman said she looks forward to delivering fresh tomatoes and other vegetables to the schools throughout the year.
"There is no doubt in my mind that this was a wonderful decision," she said. "[Anderson] has set the bar high and he's done it right."
Creating tasty dishes
Armed with fresh ingredients, Anderson said food service employees spent the summer learning how to create tasty gourmet dishes with the variety of fruits and vegetables.
"It's a lot more work," Anderson said of the decision to use fresh produce. "Used to, we could order cucumbers pre-cut in frozen bags and just heat them up. But cooking fresh is different. It takes more time and prep."
Anderson said each school kitchen received new food processors this year to help speed up the prep time, as well as additional staff.
"I work with a lot of great people who are very talented, without them on board for this, it wouldn't be possible," he said. "These are not the stereotypical angry lunch lady that just dishes out food on a tray — I don't hire those people. In Madison County, we have well-trained professionals who use quality equipment just like their counterparts in high-end restaurants."
With a larger staff and fresh food approach, the stakes are even higher this year for the food service program as every school in the district will be providing students with free breakfast and lunches.
B. Michael Caudill Middle School and White Hall Elementary were the only two schools to not provide free lunches for all students, this year that will change, and Anderson said he is determined to provide the best.
"We've invested in better ovens and equipment, better ingredients and in training," he said. "We want to provide our students with gourmet meals prepared by professional chefs."
The investment has paid off as the school system's food service department was recently recognized by the Kentucky School Nutrition Association (KSNA) with top honors and gold and silver seal awards for excellence for four of its schools, with Kingston Elementary receiving a special recognition.
While Anderson's approach might be noble, he does admit there is a chance the department could lose money as food services receives no funding from the board of education and restrictions in federal funding formulas could lead to lost dollars on free lunches and breakfasts.
However, the food service director said the past few years have shown that investing in good food, proper equipment and dedicated people works out as the department has managed to bring themselves into a strong financial situation, becoming self-sufficient in a short time. Anderson said he did that by investing in energy efficient equipment, eliminating waste and altering costly practices.
With the fresh produce, Anderson said his employees will be able to use the fruits and vegetables in a variety of ways instead of using one ingredient for one dish or side while giving more control over to the chefs to deliver a menu that is delicious and popular with students.
"Am I paying more for a tomato, yes," he said. "But my hope is that the tomato is going to look and taste so good that our kids will eat it and love it."
Anderson said he is looking forward this "fresh start" to the school year and if the farm-to-school approach is successful he plans to extend the program to include meat options.
Reach Ricki Barker at 624-6611; follow her on Twitter @RickiBReports.