Jackson Preparatory School in Jackson, Miss., sees 100 percent of its graduates enrolling in college, a point of particular pride for the school and its president, Dr. Jason Walton.
Assisting in that mission is the school’s dining program, which is operated by Valley Services, a business unit of Elior North America.
The dining program offers students a college type of meal service that was augmented at the start of the current school year by the introduction of a coffee/smoothie/ice cream bar concept developed especially for Jackson Prep by Valley. Called Turnrow to Tailgate to highlight its farm-to-table emphasis, it gives Jackson Prep students and faculty a place to grab a quick refreshment all day, from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
"Turnrow to Tailgate brings the college life experience to Jackson Prep students,” says Paul Ruiter, director of operations for Valley Services at Jackson. “It has created a communal environment that has made it a focal point of the school. You see kids in there all day."
In accordance with farm-to-table principles, the venue uses coffee beans from local roaster Bean Fruit Coffee Co. and packaged cold-drip products from locally based Mississippi Cold Drip Coffee Co., along with “old fashioned” (i.e., not homogenized) local milk.
Farm-to-table has been an important component in Jackson Prep’s dining culture since January 2014, when the school launched its Farm to Prep program to source ingredients for its menus within a 100-mile radius.
Ruiter says the program is now up to a dozen vendors supplying products like milk, sausage, bread, produce and honey.
In addition to its coffee selections, which range from espressos and mochas to the brand’s very popular signature Preppuccino, Turnrow to Tailgate also offers ice cream, hot chocolate, a Juice Bar cooler with fresh juice selections and daily smoothie specials like the popular banana berry blast as well as high-performance blends designed for athletes with ingredients like protein powders, matcha green tea and local honey.
The station sits astride the dining room, a relaxing, rustic-looking space designed to serve as a focal point of student life. That the dining commons is located in a separate building from the academic areas and connected to them by a covered walkway further emphasizes its function as a kind of separate getaway space.
“Turnrow to Tailgate has become a destination for students to socialize and study, parents to network and our staff to refuel each day,” Walton observes.
Besides Turnrow to Tailgate, the café has six food stations that provide a college-like array of dining choices at lunch.
They include a grill with the traditional choices like burgers, fries, grilled chicken sandwiches and housemade chicken tenders, and a pizza station offering traditional favorites like cheese and pepperoni every day along with daily specials like Buffalo chicken, spicy shrimp and the ever-popular multitopping “kitchen sink.”
The deli offers standards like chicken club, popcorn chicken wrap and grilled cheese premade for quick service, plus the option to customize, while the salad bar (called Garden Club) features at least two composed leaf salads like chicken Caesar, Oriental chopped or apple walnut each day, plus the option to create one’s own from the array of ingredients available.
A comfort food station called Café Classics has a rotation of traditional favorites like chicken and dumplings, meatloaf, pot roast and roasted chicken, while the Trends station concentrates on newly popular selections and special menu items.
For example, Trends hosts the café’s Meatless Monday option each week and features a farm-to-table selection each Thursday. It is also where Valley brings in guest chefs, usually Jackson Prep alumni who have gone into the foodservice business and operate local restaurants. Each guest chef signs a celebrity plate with their date of graduation on it, and the plate is then put on display in the café to inspire current students.
The café opens daily at 7:30 a.m., a half hour ahead of the start of classes, and gives students a chance to grab breakfast, from full meals like a farm-to-table eggs and sausage plate, biscuits and gravy, housemade granola or cheese grits to a make-your-own plate from the fruit and yogurt bar which features at least eight different types of fruit each day. A highlight of the breakfast service is a juice machine that lets students see the oranges dropping in the hopper and being cut and juiced.
Breakfast participation averages around 40 percent daily, Ruiter says, while lunch participation is around 82 percent, with about a hundred faculty and staffers regularly joining the students for the midday meal. The rush is handled by staggering entry at 10-minute intervals over the lunch period, which extends from 11:30 a.m. to 1:15 p.m.
Popularity in terms of meal choices tends to differ by age, with younger students opting for traditional “kid” favorites from the pizza and grill stations, but the tastes start to change and become more sophisticated around 9th grade, Ruiter offers, and Trends starts to become a favorite stop.
“As kids grow and mature they really begin to appreciate the more authentic foods, foods that they eat in restaurants when they go out,” he says.
“We are a private academy and continuously look for ways to drive recruitment, improve our offerings for current families and most importantly fuel our students for academic success,” Walton says. “We want our students to have innovative culinary experiences that go beyond the meal they are eating and encompass everything from the dining facility to the staff that interact with students and faculty. Our culinary program and partnership with Valley are key components in differentiating Jackson Prep and making our school a top choice for students seeking an environment that inspires and challenges them toward academic, athletic and artistic excellence.”