I had the opportunity to work in the kitchens of Robbinsdale ISD this summer. Actually, I kind of shamelessly begged - "could I please, please come spend a couple hours each Friday and help out over lunch". Robbinsdale is the district closest to General Mills headquarters so it is convenient, plus I know the Child Nutrition Director and Assistant Director. The district has a long proud history with an active group of dedicated volunteers but they had never had anyone volunteer in the Nutrition Department. After filling out some forms and going to a couple of meetings, they said yes and are kind of stuck with me now!
I have worked in foodservice my entire adult life and have degrees in culinary arts, nutrition and food science. I have been the K12 corporate chef for General Mills for probably 10 years, learned a tremendous amount about school foodservice and have made dozens of culinary presentations to K12 audiences. True confession here though, while I’ve visited and done classes and prepared for meetings in school kitchens, I've never actually worked in a school kitchen. I felt like I was missing out on a really vital experience - and I was. I was also missing out on a heck of a lot of fun!
I spent nine Fridays this summer, alternating between two different schools in the district, FAIR (Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource) and Sandburg Middle School. I have been in FAIR school regularly for the past four years. My Little, in the Big Brothers Big Sisters school-based program is a student there.
I had been in the Sandburg cafeteria too for an Empty Bowls event which is a “grassroots effort to raise both money and awareness in the fight to end hunger”. Even though both schools were familiar, I was still nervous when I went in for my first day at each school. I had no chef jacket or tall hat to hide behind, just my polo shirt, khakis and a hair net. I had that new kid at a new school feeling! Silly me. School foodservice people are the nicest people in the world. It turned out that I already knew and really liked two of the women I would be working with and the other three were absolute sweethearts. I had so much fun and learned so much from them.
To focus on just a part of what I learned - I learned a lot about fruit in schools:
- The staff takes a lot of pride in serving gorgeous and varied fruit options to the students.
- Students were encouraged to take more than one fruit serving and many did.
- Fruit is served in 5 ounce plastic or paper fluted paper cups for fruit. That assured they had the necessary ½ cup serving and the larger cups were less likely to tip over and spill. They doubled the paper cups when they prepped ahead to keep the cups from getting soggy.
- Speaking of watermelon, a new use came up while we were chatting and doing pots at the end of the day. I learned that one of the best smoothies served the previous school year was a combination of pureed watermelon, the drained juice from canned pineapple and Yoplait® ParfaitPro® Lowfat Strawberry Yogurt. That does sound like a good summer treat! Too bad those little paper umbrellas aren’t really used for school meals!
That smoothie tip sparked a conversation about watermelon rind being edible. I think the kiwi skin episode had been the week before so there was a logical link there. Now I know that pickled watermelon rind is awesome. I grew up eating that. But eating the white rind and green outside skin completely raw was new to me. I haven’t tried it yet but every time I’ve seen watermelon since then, I’ve been tempted! I also think back to fun I had working with my friends at Robbinsdale!
- Each day they offered servings of canned, fresh and dried fruits. I was surprised when students would select applesauce over fresh grapes or melon but some did and after all, it is all about giving choices. Maybe they have loose teeth!
- The addition of a fresh berry or a maraschino cherry can perk up a pale fruit offering and help entice a place on to a tray.
- A sheet pan of pre-portioned fruit was displayed on full sheet pan size ice packs which sat on the serving line. That eliminated the need for a salad bar or cold well for service and worked great. I had never seen that kind of ice pack before. Cool – in more than one way!
- I learned that when whole bananas are brown and spotted most students will snub them. When those same bananas are sliced right before service and topped with a fresh berry for color –there is a complete turnaround and the bananas turned into the first fruit selected. Magic!
One of the most fun things I learned is that kiwi skin is edible. I noticed one day that kiwi quarters were one of the selections offered. I asked if the students ate them with spoons and learned that many of the students ate them just like apple slices – fuzzy brown skin and all. I kind of had a hard time believing that but at the end of the day, a little bit on a dare, I decided to try it for myself. Was this “lunch lady hazing” of the new kid? Nope. The skin was just fine. I was surprised; the fuzz was no big deal at all.
- One day I was cutting up watermelon to serve and decided to cut it into wedges and serve it in plastic sandwich bags. I had seen them do it at White Bear Lake High School South last year and thought it was a fun approach. I enjoyed getting to share something I had learned in one school with the staff of another district. One of the ladies I was working with said that it made it seem more like a summer treat served that way.