Rachel Murphy has big plans for the school program at Syracuse Schools in New York. For one thing, she wants to centralize production in one location to maximize efficiency while allowing more scratch cooking.
But the other major initiative that Murphy, who took over as the district’s director of food and nutrition services earlier this year, is implementing this year is an increased focus on international and ethnic foods. That came as a suggestion by students and their families from the very diverse Syracuse district where many of the some 21,000 students come from over 70 countries from around the world.
“We want to have themed days where we can bring on a second entrée and start doing some exotic things with the students basically directing us on the kind of [dishes] they want to have,” Murphy explains. “That’s where the student piece [of the menu planning process] comes in,” she adds.
The program started off modestly this September with dishes from more familiar cuisines such as Mexican (chicken fajitas, beef/cheese quesadilla, beef taco bowl), Asian (noodle bowl with edamame, orange chicken/fried rice, curry chicken over rice) and Middle Eastern (veggie gyro, Mid East salad plate with pita pocket) on the lunch menu.
Down the line, dishes like jerk chicken, rice and peas, and rice and beans are being considered.
“There are a lot of dishes about which we heard from the students and their families through surveys we conducted in the last school year,” Murphy offers. “We took all that information and created a model to work off of.”
Other dishes that kept being brought up in these surveys included relative exotica such as Puerto Rican spicy rice and Yemeni rice and chicken. “These kinds of things we’d have to dive into a little closer before we could roll them out” because they have to be made compliant with federal school meal regulations, Murphy suggests.
Some are non-starters for various reasons: “We cannot even entertain any that are fried,” for example, she notes.
If the proposed dishes can be made to conform and can be produced within budgetary limits, Murphy says she plans to roll them out on a pilot basis to gauge interest, and if there is enough, they could become menu standards that run alongside the more traditional offerings.
The potential flavor palette and range of possibilities is extensive because of the ethnic diversity of the Syracuse district, which reportedly encompasses 84 spoken languages ranging from the relatively common like English and Spanish to Arabic, Somali, Hindi, Nepali and Karen (a language originating in Southeast Asia).
The menu changes are intended to be incorporated across all the sites, though some dishes are reserved for just the high schools. Syracuse currently has 32 school sites, of which five are high schools.
Meanwhile, a centralized kitchen initiative is intended to streamline the current production approach that encompasses five cooking kitchens where a lot of scratch prep already takes place.
“What [the central kitchen] will allow us to do is increase the amount of scratch cooking and create more opportunity to procure things in bulk and store it [centrally] instead of having to distribute it to five different cooking kitchens,” Murphy explains. It will also allow more menu consistency and permit bulk production of core components like sauces.
Once the central kitchen is up, the individual sites will be converted to finishing kitchens to add the final touches to dishes. “We will still want assembly to occur at the very end because we never want to get away from that freshness and there are just some things you can’t do in advance,” Murphy explains.
Another initiative Murphy hopes to explore is more local sourcing of products. She notes that Upstate New York is a fertile agricultural region with plenty of farms she wants to try to tap. “We’re looking to change our bidding process so we can increase how many local people we have and diversify our procurement and the different menu items we serve based on our region,” she notes, adding that Syracuse Schools already has made one significant local contact: a nearby Chobani factory now supplies yogurt for the breakfast program districtwide.
The 100 percent CEP (Community Eligibility Program) district offers a diverse breakfast program that encompasses everything from breakfast in the classroom and breakfast off the bus with serving kiosks at hallway intercept points to hot breakfast service in the cafeterias.
Murphy hopes to also add some ethnic choices to the breakfast menu once the central kitchen is operational. Currently, the program relies mostly on prepackaged selections from manufacturers.