Two Tiny Districts Handle Big Changes While Honing Leadership Skills

By Chef Jessica Wright, LiveWell Colorado School Food Initiative

As a LiveWell School Food Initiative Chef, my work is mainly focused in two school districts, each with less than 250 students: Idalia School District (on the Eastern Plains, practically in Kansas) and Centennial School District (in the southern part of the San Luis Valley and rather close to New Mexico). Working in these two diverse regions of Colorado, I am left incredibly humbled as I come to know and love the amazing people who have committed themselves to their community via the school food program. Here, I highlight some of the many big successes we’ve seen in these two tiny districts.

Idalia School District

Idalia is a community focused on athletics and ensuring all students have access to quality, wholesome meals. Since partnering with LiveWell’s School Food Initiative, Food Service Director Griselda Cano (pictured with me on left) and her assistant cook, Iliana Torres, have shown a desire to learn and build on existing skills. Their willingness has allowed us to experiment and test out many new menu items, with almost 10 new ones making the cut on the menu this last school year. We also worked on creating more variety within their already beautiful salad bar by introducing roasted and pickled veggies along with bean salads that the students and teachers love.

Since this community emphasizes athletics, there is high priority to make sure students are well-fed on game days. We have spent time working within the regulations set by the USDA to manage those requests, including offering unlimited trips to the salad bar.

Over the last year, I have seen Griselda and Iliana develop even more pride in the food being prepared, along with the initiative to try new cooking techniques and recipes. Both Griselda and Iliana had some previous cooking background but have never been in a role quite like this. This last year, I focused on helping them build their skills as well as create and implement systems that will improve efficiencies in their kitchen. In order to keep this program sustainable, the 2017-18 school year will focus on growing that ownership piece and building up kitchen confidence so Griselda and Iliana can become voices for their school food program in the community.

Centennial School District

Centennial will be starting the 2017-18 school year with a new superintendent, principal, and other key staff members. Crystal Quintana has served as the Food Service Director for a few years now, though she started out as the district librarian. She has truly embraced our goals of systems change to help manage her team and stay organized. Her desire to create a strong school food program shines through her work, and I’ve watched her become an advocate and leader in the process.

Another great quality Crystal has is that she’s not afraid to shake things up. A fantastic example of this is when we had to readjust the position of their register to beyond the salad bar. This brought them into USDA compliance but required a complete switch of the flow of service. The first day was a bit chaotic, but we worked with the teachers, students, and custodial staff to make little tweaks as needed. By the third day, things were flowing rather smoothly. Now when I visit, the service flow appears seamless, as if it had always been that way; however, this wouldn’t have occurred without Crystal’s determination and leadership.

While our work at Centennial focused on systems development (standardizing recipes, creating streamlined order guides, etc.), we also worked with the staff to build their culinary skills. They have learned how to develop new recipes as well as how to safely utilize the new commercial kitchen equipment provided by the LiveWell School Food Initiative.

Centennial already does a lot of cooking from scratch, including homemade bread and pizza crust, so our focus is on adding more flavor to current recipes, introducing creative items to the salad bar, and streamlining daily operations to create more efficiencies.

Building a successful and sustainable program in both districts

When school food programs are organized, you can really start to identify the areas that need improvement and effectively introduce new recipes into the menu cycle. In working closely with my two small districts, I’ve been fortunate to have a front row seat to this process.

The first is the systems piece—ensuring recipes are correct and within regulations, creating cycle menus to streamline operations, working with the staff to build culinary and time management skills, etc. Additionally, it’s easier to train staff and maintain consistencies when the Food Service Director and Managers are organized on the back-end. Food Service Directors have very little time to spend on perfecting those systems, as they tend to be doing everything they can just to make it through the school year. Being able to offer them this type of assistance to our participants has been critical in creating a sustainable school food program.

The second piece is the students – you can make amazing food but if they don’t eat it, then what? I have found success in taking the time to sit down with the older students and give them honest answers about some of the rules that have to be followed, along with why fresh, whole foods are beneficial to them. With the younger students, telling them that their taste buds can learn just like their brain is extremely effective. Kids will then start telling me all about how they never used to like cucumbers, carrots, apples, etc. and now they do! I also teach students how to describe their thoughts about what they taste. Now they’re moving away from just saying “eww” to identifying what they don’t care for.

Building these types of customer relationships is essential to the success and sustainability of the school food program. These students come to trust us and want to try new things, and that is incredible to witness! As a whole, the intent with my two districts is to not only meet them where they are, but to gradually work on elevating specific objectives. Although it can be a slow process, allowing districts to take ownership creates longevity. I love to plant “little seeds of ideas” and see them sprout!

In the long run, the School Food Initiative is not only teaching culinary skills, but honing leadership skills—and that is what makes a strong, sustainable school food service program.