Students in the Windham Raymond School District sometimes eat chicken and waffles for lunch.
Jeanne Reilly, the Maine district’s director of school nutrition, says the popular menu item came from an elementary school classroom event in 2017. The district chef challenged kids to come up with a menu item that complies with USDA standards. Then the students practiced planning, preparing and marketing the meal.
It was such a good idea, the district put it into permanent rotation.
The nutrition department often interacts with students, soliciting their ideas and feedback. They also let kids sample the food. Every month they give out bites of possible menu items at tasting events called Taste It Tuesday for elementary kids and Fear Factor Friday for the upper grades. In the fall, the middle and high schoolers tried sweet Thai chili-roasted Brussels sprouts.
“We ran out of them,” Reilly says. “They were wildly popular.”
Sampling and acting on student feedback are two ways the district has gained trust and buy-in from students. And it’s worked.
When Reilly first joined the district for the 2008-09 school year, they served very few meals. At Windham High School, which has a student population of about 1,000, they served between 80 and 100 meals a day. Today, that number is between 450 and 500.
But there’s more to the story than making school lunch popular.
“We really feel like we’re doing more than feeding kids every day. We’re educating them on healthy eating and hopefully changing the way this next generation eats and thinks about food. We feel like we’re feeding the future.”
Reilly built the program slowly. At first, she bumped up the nutritional value of meals by using more whole grains and fresh produce. She secured grant dollars to outfit the kitchens with equipment such as refrigerators, freezers, ovens, steamers and knives and taught staff to make more meals from scratch.
She also launched a culinary boot camp that’s become a yearly event. Each August, the nutrition staff learns knife skills and speed batch cooking techniques. They also break into teams for a friendly “Chopped”-style cooking competition.
In 2013, the district hired chef Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro, who launched the classroom tasting events, led menu development and ran the culinary boot camp.
She also created an afterschool culinary club using local grant money. Chef Sam and one staff member rotated between the schools, teaching small groups of students to make scaled-down versions of lunch menu items.
Reilly started promoting the new things the nutrition department was doing on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, posting photos of staff hand-breading chicken tenders and tins of housemade muffins.
“It’s great to change,” she says. “But unless people see those changes, they’re not going to believe we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Their presence on social media has “changed how the community feels about our school meals.” Reilly used to field calls from disappointed parents. Today, parents reach out to thank the staff for encouraging their kids to try new things. Some even request recipes.
Reilly teams up with the district’s new chef, Ryan Roderick, to plan six-week menu cycles, one for the elementary schools and another for the middle and high schools. Once a cycle is planned, they run it twice and solicit staff feedback.
They also look for ways to engage students, like coming up with special names for meals (the “End Zone Calzone Bar”) and running theme meals.
Their fall harvest lunch highlights ingredients grown by local farmers who partner with the district. Last year, they served chicken drumsticks, smashed potatoes, delicata squash “smiles” and granola-topped blueberry bars. They even served local milk sourced from Oakhurst Dairy.
Every March, they run a campaign called “Eat Our Way Through the Alphabet” for National Nutrition Month, serving “A” foods on the first day of the month, such as asparagus, arugula and apricots; “B” foods on the second day; and so on. It’s a lot of work—they have to talk to vendors much earlier than usual. But Reilly says it’s worth it.
“Parents thank us for introducing their kids to jicama or quinoa. It’s just been a really big success.”
Students love the changes, too. The majority of Windham High students eat a school lunch every day.
Reilly is thrilled that parents and students have embraced the program. But she thinks the staff’s enthusiasm for healthy, delicious food is just as exciting.
She’s quick to give them the credit for cooking and promoting good eating habits every day. “They’re the ones who are driving a lot of this now.”