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Guest Chef Program Helps Introduce Healthy Lunch Choices

Guest Chef Program Helps Introduce Healthy Lunch Choices

By gradually introducing more healthful lunch choices at Beecher Road School, the Woodbridge Board of Education is hoping to instill lifelong healthy eating habits in the children. Until a few years ago, the whole movement toward ‘clean’ eating stopped at the cafeteria door. Relying largely on trucked-in, highly processed and frozen food, school cafeterias nationwide struggled to introduce more fresh choices. And many cafeteria officials reported that when they did, scores of apples ended up in the trash.

The district has made it its mission to change that. Last February, School Supt. Guy Stella named a Cafeteria Task Force, including representatives from parents and staff, which reviewed the status quo and made recommendations to the Board of Education at its May meeting. Among those recommendations was the introduction of a “Guest Chef” program, which got off the ground this month, and created some buzz at the school.

On Monday, June 1, Suzanne Beck, a cook at Bloodroot restaurant in Bridgeport, was the first visiting chef at the Beecher cafeteria. She volunteered her time at the school. Beck introduced a recipe for Sizzling Squash – baking squash wedges sprinkled with oil and fresh herbs. Free samples of the dish were presented to anyone who wanted to try them. The following Monday, June 8th, the squash was to be the vegetable served as a side.

The children could express their reaction by voting for or against it on a poster as they walked out of the cafeteria (don’t care for it/it was okay/I liked it) by placing a sticker on the appropriate column. It seemed that the “likes” carried the day and several children stopped by to express how much they liked it.

The plan is to eventually introduce different beans and grains in the same gradual way, said cafeteria consultant Christine Wallace, SNS, with Good Food, Fun Food, who has been working with the cafeteria staff. The first job for the visiting chef was to show the cafeteria staff how to treat, clean, cut and cook the herbs, she said.

Cafeteria supervisor Jane Roddy was delighted about the chef’s visit. She is hoping that the new food offerings will generate enough interest to grow the hot lunch program. Out of 800 students at Beecher, only 250 to 300 buy a hot lunch. The others bring food from home.

Roddy had introduced other changes in the past, such as offering a la carte items of cut-up fruit and vegetables, and exercising portion control. Suzanne Wallace praised Roddy’s “kid-friendly” bags with fresh fruit and vegetables. It is one way to gently introduce more healthful choices within the parameters of existing space, equipment, staffing and cost, she said.

Soon after Wallace was initially contacted by the district to consult them on the healthy school lunch issue, the district was informed that it would be subject to a federal Child Nutrition program review, which she helped staff work through.   In addition to the Guest Chef program, the task force recommended:

  • To highlight healthy food items by placing them into plain view;
  • to reduce the overall number of packaged food;
  • to introduce a Farm to School Program – a connection with Massaro Farm has already been established; and
  • to expand the selection of salad entrees.

Recognizing that notions of “healthful” eating may vary widely, the task force recommended — and the board adopted — the pledge to be moving in the direction for “fresher, more whole, more local, less processed foods and less artificial ingredients beyond what is required by minimum federal and state standards”.

By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent

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