Allyson Mrachek found her job as a clinical dietitian at a nonprofit community health clinic in Seattle to be fulfilling, but she was searching for more. She wanted to get outdoors and make a difference in kids’ lives. So she joined Food Corps, an AmeriCorps program that focuses on farm-to-school programming and creating healthier environments in the both the cafeteria and the classroom.
Mrachek found herself far from Seattle, in Fayetteville, Ark., working with Fayetteville Public Schools and local farms. At the end of almost a year of service, the district hired Mrachek to be the director of child nutrition. FM asked her about effectively incorporating local produce into school meals at 14 schools, creating menu items kids love through trial and error and discovering Southern staples like okra.
Q: What are the basics of getting a good farm-to-school program going?
A: “Creating the verbiage for purchasing from local farms and establishing the process and documentation in order to get more from local growers, and getting more produce into the school cafeteria. And also training kitchen staff on preparing whole food items.”
Q: Did the district have a long way to go?
A: “Luckily, Fayetteville never completely lost its ability to do scratch cooking. Each of the 14 schools has a kitchen. We did do a lot of convenience foods though, but we had a nice place to start. We didn’t have to bring in a lot of equipment for working with whole foods.
Q: What kind of equipment did you need to purchase?
A: “Choppers, mandolins and slicers for quartering apples went to every kitchen. We use only local apples from August to February. And the choppers come into play for processing large amounts of eggplants, for example.”
Q: What’s one menu item that really exemplifies the farm-to-school connection?
A: “Ratatouille. At the end of the summer we make large batches of ratatouille with local eggplants, bell peppers, summer squash, onions and tomatoes. We put them in gallon-size bags and freeze that so we can use it all year.”
Q: That sounds like a big process. How do you make it happen?
A: “It is. We ended up with 110 of the 1-gallon bags. Before that can happen, a lot of it has to do with availability from the growers. With ratatouille, a lot of ingredients have to be ready for harvest at the same time. Maybe you have a whole bunch of eggplant but not enough bell peppers. That’s when plot planning with the farms comes in.”
Q: And then the kitchens need to be ready for that big haul of vegetables.
A: “You have to plan to have the labor available when it’s time to do big batches. We hired one substitute worker, and instead of having all 14 kitchens making ratatouille independently, we find a couple of kitchens with a really strong staff and challenged them to process this ratatouille for the whole district. They really just took it on. I went to a kitchen at 8:30 that morning, and they had it bagged up already. We did the same thing with bell pepper for cheesesteaks. It’s nice to have those bagged and ready to go.”
Q: Do you process all the produce right away?
A: “No. Things like apples, winter squash and onions, we can buy them all in bulk and store them in our warehouse. The farmers really like that because they can move their produce and get a big paycheck and that helps us too, with availability, so we know where we’re at.”
Developing new recipes
A: “Last year, we did, but this year, we’re going to use the bagged and ready-to-heat ratatouille as a component of a new menu item we’re calling Ozark lasagna with whole-grain noodles and cottage cheese. It is so tasty. We tested it over our summer lunch program. And it doesn’t have meat, so we can serve it on Meatless Mondays.”
Q: So you use Meatless Mondays as a way to work in more veggies?
A: “Yes. And another example of a great Meatless Monday that’s a little more indulgent and fun but still healthy is cheese fries with kale salad.”
Q: What’s your competition for participation?
A: “One thing I kept in mind while developing recipes is that we have a pretty low free-and-reduced lunch percentage, so a lot of kids can bring lunches from home, so that’s what I’m competing against. And I think of the places they like to go, like Olive Garden and Chick-fil-A. So I created things like chicken Alfredo pasta and chicken teriyaki.”
Q: Are the kids pretty adventurous eaters?
A: “We’re always going to have the chicken nugget and pizza kids. But a few years ago we started a harvest of the month program and the kids are becoming more adventurous. Every month we feature a local fruit, vegetable or grain for a taste test they can vote on, and then that item will be featured in different menu items a couple times that month. One of the coolest outcomes is that we’ve convinced the cafeteria staff that the kids will actually eat this stuff. At first, some had a ‘don’t even bother’ attitude. Now, they see that the kids are more comfortable. If I put a kale salad on the menu, I at least know they will try it.”
Q: What’s the kale salad like?
A: “That recipe was adapted from our local deli, Ozark National Food. The manager told me about a cool fall recipe. And then I simplified that for school food, changed the flavors a little bit…it’s an apple cider vinaigrette with sunflower seeds and dried cranberries. The cool thing about that is that you can make it a day ahead of time because the kale does stand up to the dressing. It actually makes it better. And if it doesn’t all get served out, we can put it on the salad bar the next day.”
Q: Have you had any new recipe flops/fails?
A: “The taste tests really do help. We tried a local red bean and rice dish that they didn’t like, so we didn’t put that on the menu. Also, we want feedback so we can tweak recipes. Another recipe was okra with a kick that turned out to have too much of a kick. It had turmeric, olive oil, salt and pepper, cayenne and red pepper flakes. Kids at the elementary school level were saying, ‘This is burning my mouth!’ So we changed it, and we had to let them know we changed it. Staff can tell kids, ‘It’s not so spicy anymore.’”
Q: Being from the Pacific Northwest, I have to imagine that okra was new to you.
A: “Yes! I grew up in Washington state, so okra was definitely new to me. When I moved here, I made an effort to learn about Southern cooking. Just roasting it till it gets kind of golden…it’s so good! I’m also learning about ingredients like pawpaws, and I’m honing my cornbread skills with a new cast-iron skillet.”
Q: Sounds great! Any favorite tip or trick for cooking with vegetables at school?
A: “For butternut squash, we wash them in their whole form, then put them in a pan in the steamer with the skin still on, cook that for five minutes and it loosens the skin so we can easily peel that. Then we just chop it and roast it with salt and pepper, and the kids love that more than sweet potatoes.”