Yummmmm: Elizabethtown Ind. High students, cafeteria staff try more flavorful school lunch options with the help of professional chef provided under federal pilot program

News-Enterprise, Elizabethtown, April 20, 2017

Pilot USDA program sends chef to help with school lunches

By Katherine Knott

Cafeteria workers at Elizabethtown High School are receiving some extra help this week.

Chef Mike Jones is working with the staff to help make school lunches more flavorful, and he’s experimenting with some dishes to shake up the menu, all while following nutritional requirements. He started in the kitchen last week.

“I’m taking vegetables that we didn’t like as kids and trying to put my own spin on them,” Jones said.

Jones is one of three chefs working in schools throughout the state as part of a pilot program called Chefs in Schools through the Ken­tucky Department of Agriculture and backed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“The Chefs in Schools program utilizes professional chefs to help Kentucky schools enhance their food offerings and use more local foods,” Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles said in a news release. “Students get more nutritious foods, and local farmers and food producers get new markets for their products.”

Jones won the appetizer entrée contest in the Taste of Derby competition in 2016, and he worked in the food service industry for 12 years, according to the news release.

Jones and the other chefs are working with cafeteria workers on pre­paring food, adding flavor to it and making it more visually appealing.

“High school kids eat with their eyes,” said Mike Sallee, director of nutrition services for Elizabethtown Independent Schools.

Jones is working with the school district for three weeks. Sallee said he will spend another week at the high school before working with the middle and elementary schools.

He’s spending more time at the high school because there’s more room to work with in the sodium and calorie requirements, he said.

“He can actually make a little bit more of a difference (in the high school),” Sallee said.

Jones’ first week was spent getting acclimated to the new kitchen and familiarizing himself with the nutritional requirements.

Jones said the hardest part of working with the guidelines is not being able to use salt. His go-to substitutes are garlic powder and onion powder.

On Monday, he was cutting Brussels sprouts in preparation for Wednesday’s lunch. He was planning a homemade meatloaf to go with the Brussels sprouts, which were seasoned with olive oil, garlic powder and onion powder. They then were roasted with carrots. Jones also made a peach barbecue sauce to go on the meatloaf.

One of his goals is to bring fresh vegetables back to school. He’s working with farmers through KDA’s Farm to School program to get fresh ingredients.

Heather Young, the high school’s cafeteria manager, said the Farm to School pro­gram is something they’ve been offered but never used.

Through Chefs in Schools, KDA is hoping to help schools use more local foods on the menus, according to a news release.

Jenny Constant, a cafeteria worker at the high school, has enjoyed having Jones in the kitchen.

“He has his own knives for one thing,” she said. “He’s really knowledgeable about what he’s doing.”

Constant raved about the salad Jones made for the kitchen crew. He even made his own croutons for the salad.

In her six years at the school, she can’t remember the school ever serving meatloaf at lunch.

Young said because the program is backed by the USDA, Jones has the freedom to do things they haven’t previously done such as trying new vegetables or spices.

She said they use vegetables on a daily basis. Ordering new fruits and vegetables is a gamble, though. Young said she once ordered plums, but the students didn’t know what they were.

Young said they’ve wanted to try new things that they as parents know how to do, but time also is a factor. Each day, they have to make three lunches in under two hours, and keep it cooked, hot and on the line.

“It’s hard for one of our people to have that extra prep time,” she said.

Moving forward, she said the staff might work to integrate more time for food preparation into the schedule.

The cafeteria also is competing with outside food and what they can bring from home, Young said.

“You need food choices that speak to them on their level,” she said.

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