In April, three chefs—Judy Gurnee, Brad Mitchell and Mike Jones—were placed in three different Kentucky school districts as part of a new, yearlong program through the state’s Department of Agriculture called Chefs in Schools.
Each chef spent one month with the foodservice staff in his/her assigned district before moving on to another district. The program aims to reach all Kentucky schools participating in the National School Lunch Program, increase support of the Farm to School movement and reduce hunger in Kentucky.
During the chef’s time with the district, they help introduce more local products into menus, build a stronger bridge between local producers and suppliers and school foodservice professionals and develop new recipes that meet or exceed USDA guidelines.
“The idea of having a chef work with each district seemed like the best way to introduce local ingredients that might be hard to fit into menus,” says Tina Garland, procedures development coordinator for the Kentucky Department of Agriculture. “As a professional culinarian, these chefs can help the districts stay compliant and find delicious ways to use new and abundant ingredients.”
For Gurnee, who worked with Carter Country Schools in Grayson, the experience has thus far been rewarding, challenging and exciting.
“We began in Carter County by looking at the nutrient profiles of many of the foods on the menus and identifying dishes the foodservice staff thought needed to be improved,” says Gurnee, who is the chef/owner of a farm-to-fork boutique catering company. “We are trying to make this as user-driven as possible. My goal is to help the schools solve their problems instead of coming in and dictating what they must do. Together, we find ways to bring these products in, whether as a featured ingredient or simply as a way to build flavor.”
In one of Carter County’s high schools, for example, Gurnee worked with the staff to develop a sweet and sour pork recipe that students love and will be added to the menu in the fall. In another she developed a Moroccan chicken dish featuring local mint. In still another, she helped retool the baked bean recipe to make it more healthful and feature local vegetables.
“We incorporated fruit into the recipe, for sweetness, as well as fresh, local peppers and onions,” says Gurnee. “But rather than leaving the vegetables whole and having students object, we basically turned them into a sauce. This way, students get a serving of fruit and vegetables along with the protein from the legumes. We really beefed up the nutrient profile and it tastes delicious.”
Gurnee even identified a courtyard area in one of Carter County’s schools where plans are now in the works to build a garden that students can tend to learn more about the farm-to-fork process.
“When chef Gurnee visits our schools and connects with our foodservice staff members, she inspires them to better themselves,” says Sheila Bradshaw, child nutrition director for Carter County. “The regulations have made it hard for a lot of our cooks who are used to using butter and salt. But because of [Gurnee], they’ve learned that there are other ways to make food delicious and still make it healthy. They’re excited about the future now, which is wonderful for all of us—especially the students.”
“Being invited into these kitchens to work alongside the cooks who go above and beyond to feed their students has been deeply rewarding to me as a chef,” says Gurnee. “Chefs in Schools has certainly helped us to introduce more local foods, but it’s also transformed and elevated the roles of the school foodservice professionals working the line every day. It’s given them confidence to try new ingredients, experiment with recipes and test them with students to get feedback. It’s also given students a chance to connect with their local communities while eating better-for-them foods.”
Funding for the Chefs in Schools program is provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service and the Kentucky Department of Education, Division of School and Community Nutrition. It is a one-year grant.
“I think two of the biggest hurdles directors face when it comes to working with local products are procuring them and then finding ways to use them on the menu in ways students enjoy,” says Garland, who hopes to not only extend the Chefs in Schools program indefinitely, but also someday place a chef in every district. “Chef in Schools helps our districts and directors overcome these challenges—and so many others—in positive and productive ways.”