Students in one northern Kentucky school district will not be crying over spilt chocolate milk.
Dayton Independent Schools no longer offers chocolate milk to students, just one of the changes the district has made through its involvement with Cook for America, a company that works with schools to provide culinary training to help them serve students healthier meals.
“The Cook for America really was pretty revolutionary for me as far as thinking about our role as schools and what we need to be doing with our students,” Dayton Independent Superintendent Jay Brewer said. “One of their phrases that I like to use is that learning doesn’t stop just in the classroom, it continues in the cafeteria. So we have a responsibility to our students to engage them in healthy choices and try to back that up with the reasoning behind it.”
Dayton is one of two Kentucky districts – Erlanger-Elsmere Independent is the other – involved in the program. Cincinnati’s Interact for Health foundation sponsors the involvement, contracting with Cook for America to work with eight districts in the tristate area.
Erlanger-Elsmere began the program in 2014 and Dayton joined in 2015. The goal of the program is to assess the foods schools are serving students, recommend changes and provide training to help schools prepare a healthier, cooked-from-scratch menu.
Food service assessment
The Dayton district serves three meals a day during the school year, plus two meals a day in the summer.
Dayton High School cafeteria worker
Lorrie McBride prepares chicken for lunch.
“I’m providing anywhere between 60 to 80 percent of what these students will be eating over the course of a year,” Brewer said. “They could be with us for 15 years. That’s a huge proportion of their growth and development, and educating them on lifestyle choices as well.”
Brewer wanted to see his students eating healthier foods and less concession stand-type items. He visited Erlanger-Elsmere last year and then contacted Interact for Health to get his district involved.
The first thing Cook for America did was assess Dayton’s food services.
“They come in and do a diagnostic review of everything that you do, write up a formal report of recommendations,” Brewer said. “Looking through that report, one of their recommendations was to pull chocolate milk from our menu.”
Cook for America estimates if a student drinks chocolate milk for breakfast and lunch every day during the school year, it would result in nearly 6 pounds of additional sugar. Multiplying that over 15 years, Brewer said the decision was easy, even if it wasn’t popular.
“Are kids particularly happy about that? Of course they’re not, they’re kids. Are they coming around? Sure,” said Brewer, who noted consumption of water has gone up.
Culinary Boot Camp
The second phase was an intensive, week-long boot camp that was held at Dayton High School for the participating districts in late July.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It’s a week long, you’re here eight to 10 hours,” Dayton High School cafeteria manager Mary Long said. “And you think, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we going to be doing?’ But after the first day you were excited about the next four.
“It was fantastic because I just felt like we were going down the wrong path as far as the kind of food that we were serving the kids,” Long said. “All these fresh, homemade scratch ideas, I think benefits everybody in the long run.
“It’s baby steps but there’s only good benefits from what we’re doing.”
Cook for America chef Sally Ayotte said the goal of the training is to get kitchen staff comfortable with change and teach them basic skills.
“We share with them a variety of basic culinary skills so they can start to move forward,” Ayotte said.
Food service staff learns culinary math, cooking skills, knife skills, menu planning and how to prepare recipes, among other things.
“It was a refreshing experience for me because I have been here for many years and it brought back some of the stuff that we were doing previous years but had fallen away from,” said Lorrie McBride, who has worked 19 years in Dayton’s cafeteria.
Dayton, like many school districts, had gone to the heat-and-serve model.
“It feels like you’re a cook now, not just an oven warmer. You weren’t really doing anything,” McBride said. “Now you feel like you’re a cook. This matters.”
Mobile chef visit
Cook for America’s involvement doesn’t end when the boot camp is over. Twice a year, a chef visits the school for a week to provide assistance to the schools.
“It’s really just an opportunity for the schools to take advantage of having a chef on site to work with them and meet the training needs for anything that they either missed at boot camp or want to elaborate on and really try something new out while they have that expertise in house,” said Jaime Love of Interact for Health.
Ayotte was at Dayton in late September to work with cafeteria staff. During the week, she gave students samples of food that could be on a future menu.
“I think sampling is a good idea because then when it comes on the menu, we’ll be like, ‘Remember, you sampled that and you loved it. It tasted good,’” Dayton food service manager Lauren Marlow said. “A lot of it’s a mindset. They eat with their eyes so if it looks familiar and it looks good, they’ll be more willing to try it.”
Brewer said while it’s been an adjustment, the district is “doing this because we care.”
“It would be much easier for me to put the Pop Tarts and the doughnuts out there and just turn a blind eye to it and walk away from that and say (food and nutrition is) not part of the school’s responsibilities,” Brewer said. “But I disagree with that.
“There’s a whole lot to learn. I thought I knew a lot about school nutrition and how it all works. There’s a lot of opportunities for school districts to do things that are different. I’d encourage people to have an open mind when it comes to making that journey into improved nutrition and health for their kids. I think it’s critical.”