School-Related Professionals in the Southern Tier are heading back to cafeterias this fall with a fresh take on cooking.
Over the summer, Broome-Tioga BOCES partnered with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Broome County and the Food and Health Network to present the “Farm to School Culinary Experience,” a four-day training for food service staff that focused on how to use farm-fresh ingredients in student meals.
“We are incorporating more and more New York state products throughout our district menus,” said Annie Hudock, Broome BOCES Support Services Association. She serves as the senior food services director for Broome-Tioga BOCES. “Our staff received hands-on training to further their technical skills and be more comfortable with the new recipes we are creating.”
More than 200 food service staff from 15 different school districts attended the training at Coltivare, the culinary center at Tompkins Cortland Community College. During the training, food service managers, cooks and helpers rotated through multiple units that covered knife skills, cooking techniques and how to use industrial-grade equipment to make short work of shredding, slicing and dicing. The teams were also able to try their hand at several new recipes: chicken lo mein, pasta fagioli and cheesy cauliflower.
Broome-Tioga’s Farm to School program originated with a desire to serve healthier meals at schools. Initially, just five districts statewide participated in the program. Those districts committed to using only local ingredients on “NY Thursdays,” sourcing their proteins, grains, fruits, vegetables and milk from local farms. Today, the program has swelled to 15 districts.
“Thirty percent of our lunch budget is now spent on locally produced fresh foods — and our goal is 40 percent,” said Julie Raway, registered dietitian with Broome-Tioga BOCES and Farm to School Chair of NY School Nutrition Association. “We have fresh ingredients coming in throughout the week, but with that comes a learning curve.”
Farm-fresh products are ripe, nutrient-dense and brought to the schools fresh and unprocessed. It is up to the food service staff to break them down and prepare them in a way that kids will find appetizing.
“A lot of the foods in schools these days are ready-to-eat, so we’re trying to teach our staff how to prepare things from scratch,” said Paul Cerasaro, a member of the Broome BOCES SSA and school lunch supervisor for the Johnson City Central School District.
Cerasaro said most of his staff are part-time and have not received formal culinary training. Professional development opportunities like this help his staff — and his students. “The staff themselves were thrilled,” Cerasaro said. “Whenever we can come together for a training like this, I think we end up with a better product.”
Farm fresh lunches are healthier, better for the local economy, and the increased food costs are offset by the state’s incentive program; schools that spend at least 30 percent of their food budget on local products are reimbursed at a higher rate than they otherwise would be – 25 cents a meal as opposed to 6 cents a meal.
Tina Robinson, a member of the Union-Endicott Cafeteria Workers Association and a cook in the Union-Endicott High School, said farm-fresh meals take more effort, but the kids are worth it. “It’s better for the children to have the homemade stuff,” she said. “It’s healthier than those processed chicken patties.”
The culinary training was a big deal for Robinson and her team. “The only other training we’ve had was videos, but you can’t learn from videos.” During the training, she learned to use a robot-coupe. The industrial grade food processor is already in her cafeteria, but she’d never had a chance to try it until now. “I used it for the beets,” she said. “It makes a mess, but it makes it so much easier.”
Robinson has been cooking at the Union Endicott High School for more than 20 years. “I love watching the kids grow up. They come in when they’re freshmen and then you get to watch them all the way through,” said Robinson.
Each day, about 300 hungry kids come through her cafeteria line. It would be a daunting prospect for some, but Robinson is a seasoned pro who likes chatting with kids and encouraging them to try new foods. “I enjoy the kids. I like making sure they’re fed and happy.”