Jason Morse did not have to do K-12 foodservice. A highly credentialed chef with a degree from Johnson & Wales and a background in country club dining, Morse went to work for the Douglas County Schools in Colorado in 2011. For the past four years, he has been busy upgrading and refining the nutrition program in the district.
He recently left the district to run his company, 5280 Culinary, full time. The company markets a line of spices, rubs, brines and caramel and provides consulting services, including to school nutrition programs.
How would you characterize the last four years: Challenging? Rewarding? Frustrating? Exhilarating?
You know, I think it was very rewarding. We had a lot of opportunities to grow and learn and get the new [federal] changes implemented. It was fun, it was challenging, it was everything wrapped up into one, from how to get students to accept change to when is the right time to make changes and how to implement new things, but I think we stuck with it and it became very rewarding.
Tell me about some of the things that worked for you in making these changes.
One of the key things for me when I first started was being able to get salad bars in the schools. What a great way to display fresh fruits and vegetables outside of the normal cupped and preportioned items that we were serving! Within a few years we went from two salad bars to 90.
Is that every school?
Yeah, in every school, whether it’s a charter school or a high school—even in the high schools we now have the ability to display fresh fruits and vegetables. It gave [students] more options but then also gave them an opportunity to go through and say, ‘Oh, I want to try spinach; I want to have lettuce; I want to have broccoli; I want some carrots… Oh, applesauce today! Oh, fresh pineapple!’
Obviously, some items are more familiar than others, so how do you get students to try something for the first time?
We go out and do a lot of sampling and a lot of testing through chef events where I’ll go into a school. When we first launched salad bars, we were out in schools all the time and we maintained that out-in-school practice throughout my tenure. It was great. You got out and were able to test and sample things. We had tests go great and some not so great, but at the end of it the students felt like they were involved and part of the change process. We can sit in offices and kitchens and force change or we can get students involved in it and get them excited about change.
How do you approach different ages and grade levels?
Every level from elementary to middle to high school is different. In high schools, we had to approach it from a restaurant standpoint where we were making the coolest, funnest, hippest restaurant food. In the middle schools, they just wanted to come in and eat. They were hungry, but they wanted a lot of options. They didn’t want to have pizza every day, though they could have that. For the elementary kids it was finding what was palatable, what didn’t make them go ‘Eeuww!’ and what made them excited about eating school lunch.
We made our own cup of noodles, which was our form of ramen—whole-grain noodles, low-sodium broth, vegetables, fresh chicken—and kids loved it. That was a fun dish. We knew they were eating ramen because they were asking us for hot water, so we decided to do it on our own. We called it Chef’s Cup of Noodles, launched it at a couple of schools, piloted it and then it went on our menu and got out in front of the kids and it was something they liked. It was fun; it was interesting; it was different.
I understand you also had a lot of success in having kids come up with their own recipe ideas.
We worked with our high school ProStart team to develop pizza recipes and even a burrito concept for the high schools. I think the most important thing we need in school lunch is collaboration, whether it’s school to school, district to district, district to government or district to student. But everybody needs to have that collaborative effort.
Is working with K-12 a job you would recommend to other chefs?
Absolutely! I’m fortunate in Colorado in that I taught the apprenticeship program through the American Culinary Federation. I have a couple of my apprentices that have gone into school lunch because they see that there’s an opportunity for them, there’s the ability to create, there’s a really good challenge. One of my former apprentices is now the executive chef for another district in Denver. It’s exciting, it’s fun and where else do you have the ability to impact the meal preferences of 60,000 to 70,000 students.
School lunch is a huge culinary challenge, though, given that you have to satisfy the regulations, the financials and the tastes of kids all at once.
Yeah, but I think chefs are masters of overcoming those types of challenges. It’s like figuring out your Friday dinner specials. It was hard for me in the beginning as a chef to come in and not just be able to order this and that new product. Instead, it’s how do we utilize what we have available while not adding to our inventory but still producing really good food.
And schools have such huge buying power! For example, we worked with Redbird Farms, a local Colorado chicken company, to source chicken tenders because we knew if we could roast fresh chicken tenders in our schools and start promoting that we’re using this very popular, antibiotic-free, all-natural chicken, that would give us a lot more validity from a marketing standpoint. It would make kids say, “Whoa, wait a minute, they serve Redbird in school? My parents buy Redbird, so it must be good.”
Do schools sometimes underestimate their own purchasing clout?
I think there are opportunities for schools to look beyond what they have. Don’t be stuck buying everything from that prime vendor and seeing it as just a program where there are no changes possible. You can work with a prime vendor to go out and find new sources for things too. Again, it’s that collaboration on the purchasing front where schools have to look at it and say, “Wow, I serve 20,000 to 30,000 meals a day times 200 days in a school year. I guess I serve a lot of food!”
More lessons from the lunchroom
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What was your biggest adjustment moving into the school meal environment?
Well, I left the private country club world where I had everything at my disposal, I had every ingredient and if I didn’t have it, I’d order it. However, we were also masters of cross-utilization because we had to have small menus, so we cross-utilized.
When I got into school lunch, yeah, I started with a we’re-going-to-order-new-things-to-add-some-life-to-it mentality, and we were able to order some ingredients, but soon it became, “How can we use the inventory we have on hand?” It took a little bit of adjusting, maybe a month or two.
For example, let’s say we have 400 cases of canned diced tomatoes, so what do we do? Well, perfect! Now we can make our own marinara sauce. We use some fresh basil, fresh garlic, a little bit of sugar, some seasoning and now we can start making our own marinara from scratch, which is a huge change. So it was little baby steps like that, and those baby steps led into much greater change.
We ended up bringing raw chicken into our schools, which is a little nerve-wracking for everybody involved because they don’t cook raw. Everything is precooked. But we worked with the schools, we piloted it, tested it, trained them, had them come in and see what we did and didn’t do, how the chicken worked, how to do it separate, how there was no cross-contamination. Then we launched it and students loved it.
How difficult was it to get used to working with federal school lunch restrictions even though the district moved the high schools out of the National School Lunch Program?
Just to be clear, I was a consultant to Douglas County, not an employee and they decided they were going to move the high schools off the program. What I find interesting about that move is that our students all circled back to wanting that $3 meal deal, which is what we used to charge for the reimbursable lunch before.
I believe the school lunch program needed a face-lift, it needed an update, it needed to be current with food trends and nutritionals and things like that.
We have open campuses on our high schools. How do you convince 20,000 high school students not to go to Chipotle or some other chain restaurant that can serve you whatever they want and instead stay here and get a meal? It became a little bit difficult, being low free and reduced. Our students said, “This is what we want,” so we presented it to the board and that was the decision they made.
I have worked with school lunch throughout the United States. I worked with the National Food Service Management Institute and trained all over and one of the ah-ha things I see is that everybody assumes that scratch cooking is going to be very hard, very difficult and nobody’s going to like new and “healthy” foods.
When I can go to Jackson, Miss., and make a really nice quinoa salad and have the school lunch professionals that we’re training in the kitchen embrace that quinoa salad and see how easy it is and start to get excited and passionate about wanting to serve that, it’s a good thing.
I think the task of change is very daunting and it’s pretty comfortable in schools. They’ve done what they’ve done and this is an opportunity to do it differently. The federal guidelines are absolutely workable. I don’t find anything wrong with them; I don’t find anything negative with them.
Look, even my kids will sometimes say, “Oh, I’m so hungry because all I had for lunch is pizza!” Really? You only had pizza? What about your fruit, what about your vegetable, what about your milk? “Oh, I didn’t get any of that.”
Parents have to understand that there are five components to the meal and we have to continually remind everyone, “Hey, make sure you’re getting all five components.” They can go though our salad bars and load up as much as they want. They can go through on their first trip and load up a huge helping of fruits and vegetables, salads, whatever they need. That’s their opportunity to go through and get full.
Anything about school lunch you would like to change or tweak?
You know, what I would love is more time for our kids to eat. I think when you look at what our kids are throwing in the garbage, I don’t think they are necessarily throwing it away because it’s not palatable. I think that they have limited time at the lunch table. Our district is 20 minutes in the lunchroom to eat. Break that down: four or five minutes they wait in line and then they go through the cash register. I’ll use one of my kids as a prime example: They go through the line, they go through the cash register and then they go look around for their friends. By the time they sit down, there’s seven minutes out of it, so they have 13 minutes to eat and then you’ve got the education assistants in there trying to get them out and into their next class, and they still have to have time to clean up, so they may get caught short a couple minutes, and that hurts. If we had 10 extra minutes in the lunchroom, I think we’d have a whole different world.
What advice would you give to other chefs looking to go into school foodservice?
Be accepting of change. There’s a lot of change, there’s a lot of rules, and chefs are not necessarily rule followers, but be open to what you can do because once you embrace the rules and regs in the National School Lunch Program and you understand how it works, it’s pretty limitless what you can do. I mean, we’ve served pesto cheese bread, we’ve served flatbreads, we have pizzas, we have Taco Tuesday. We’ve served really nice meals throughout my four years that met the guidelines.
What is the most out-of-the-box thing you’ve served?
The cup of noodles wasn’t something that anybody expected to see. I don’t know how many ramen restaurants opened in Denver in the last year. I want to say maybe six or more. So for us to be able to do ramen, the kids were saying, “Whoa, that’s kind of cool!” Ramen was out of the box. We also did a roasted vegetable balsamic pizza and that was a hit. We’ve done California fresh pizza, a Caesar salad pizza. We do a roasted chicken tender Parmesan sandwich now. Just different things that are above and beyond chicken nuggets.