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North Carolina’s K-12 Culinary Institute is Working to Provide Nutritious & Delicious Meals in Schools

Nov 29, 2018 06:30AM ● By Melanie Heisinger

Chef Kelly Waldron providing guidance to school nutrition managers on how to prepare Asian Noodles with Chicken

North Carolina’s K-12 Culinary Institute was created in 2016 to provide healthy meal information and resources for nutrition food managers. Their goal is to change the landscape of school meals to something more nutritious, and delicious.

The program has been funded through grants from USDA USDA and the Blue Cross and Blue
Shield of North Carolina Foundation, and is a result of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which authorized "funding for federal school meal and child nutrition programs and increased access to healthy food for low-income children." (Source) This act updated the meal
pattern and nutrition requirements for school breakfast and lunch. The focus became, how can kids not just eat healthfully one day at a time, but experience and taste nutritious meals at school?

The creators of the NC K-12 Culinary Institute spent months of designing culinary and
professional development resources for schools, and found that creating a culinary institute was the best foundation for a program to create nutritious, healthy, locally-sourced recipes, promoting healthful meals for children.

"I can tell you that has early as 2003, we recognized that we wanted to do all we could
to help child wellbeing while doing our role to help the overweight problem," said Dr.
Lynn Harvey, chief of School Nutrition Services with the North Carolina Department of
Public Instruction. "We started to make modifications to make gradual changes in
meals."

Harvey, also a registered dietician, recognized that changes needed to be made on a gradual basis so the new programs and foods will be accepted by students: so the changes will be made FOR them and not TO them. "Nutritious meals at school is just as important as academics," Harvey told us. 

NC K-12 Culinary Surry Team Weighing Green Peppers

With the goals of increasing appealing, quality, nutritious meals at school, Susan
Thompson and Tracey Bates, both School Nutrition Specialists and registered dietitians
with NCDPI, submitted the idea of the NC K-12 Culinary Institute for a Professional
Standards Training Grant. Funds from the Department of Agriculture came through for a 3-5 year program, and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, School
Nutrition Services was tasked with the huge responsibility of developing a curriculum that was sustainable. They began sending surveys to school administrators asking what needs they had in regards to food -- equipment, resources, skills, and more. 

After the results were in, they worked to find a team of culinary experts who were registered dietitians with experience in school food. The Institute contacted Chef Cyndie Story, who had these rare skill sets, and formed an entire team of professionals. They began creating their menus and programs with a blank slate, working tirelessly until they had perfected it. 

Here are the healthy dining objectives of The NC K-12 Culinary Institute, developed by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, School Nutrition Services Section, in cooperation with Chef Cyndie Story and K-12 Team:

  • Improve student health, well-being and academic success through nutritious, appealing meals at school
  • Increase participation in high quality, enticing school nutrition programs
  • Expand capacity of local school nutrition programs to purchase, prepare and serve fresh, locally grown produce
  • Increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole-grain rich foods
  • Provide continuing education opportunities for school nutrition personnel

Realizing early on that the program needed to be hands-on, the Institute developed a teach-it-forward program where Chef Ambassadors could bring back what they learned to their schools. While at the program, these Ambassadors got to work alongside professional chefs, learning culinary skills, practicing recipes, and taking back small equipment packages, lesson plans, and more. 

Once these Ambassadors left the program, it was up to them to teach the lessons they learned to their staff. Some of these lessons included things like knife handling skills and meal prepping. The increased confidence is what Thompson most noticed in those that were involved in the training program. 

"Seeing the pride and the tears of joy sometimes at the graduation, on the third day, and seeing the friendships that they make has been so rewarding for me," Thompson said.
 
"It’s amazing to see the transformation that occurs when school nutrition managers graduate from the institute a chef ambassadors,” said Bates. “They have always been dedicated to feeding students wholesome, nutritious meals but the institute has given them the culinary and merchandising skills to confidently serve and promote school meals and educate students about nutritious choices.”

The food that is being served in most North Carolina schools are the same ingredients that local restaurants use, a huge reflection in the changing quality of the meals being served in school. Over 200 different recipes were developed, with a wide variety of focuses like chilequiles, tacos, stir fry, and more. 

“School meals are not what many may remember. They offer more whole grains, fruit, vegetables, lean proteins and low-fat dairy,” said Bates. “Students have the opportunity to try creative, gourmet, on trend, healthy recipes, options they may see in restaurants, on food trucks and in social media.”

Hawaiian Chicken Wrap

Taking advantage of the robust resources North Carolina has to offer has been a major influence in creating this program. In fact, some graduates have taken lessons they’ve learned to teach students about culinary skills and job opportunities in school nutrition.

The Institute's goal is to continue on this upcoming summer, hoping to continue beyond that. However, the program is afloat only because of grants and funding. 

"One of best things we’ve been able to accomplish to help schools in a long time is give managers and employees skill sets to do all of this," Thompson said. "As people go back and teach what they've learned, folks begin asking when the next session is going to occur. There's still excitement around concept."

It's easy to take for granted the school food program. "These men and women who are such heroes," Harvey said of school nutrition managers. "It’s not just about the meal but the interaction with the children. It's not just about nourishing the child’s body, but lifting the soul, if you will."

To learn more about this program, you can visit the North Carolina’s K-12 Culinary Institute's website, where you can find information about their programs, as well as healthy recipes. 

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