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Putting Food First in NJ Schools

Putting Food First in NJ Schools

As executive chef of Vineland Public Schools, Mark Daino hopes to teach students how to make more healthful choices through live culinary demos.

Mark Daino, the newly appointed executive chef of Vineland (N.J.) Public Schools, has big plans for his new district. Armed with an extensive background in hotels, restaurants and casinos, Daino hopes to inspire students to make more healthful choices by showing them how to prepare fruits and vegetables in both healthful and flavorful ways.

Q: You’ve spent the bulk of your career in restaurants and casinos. Why switch to schools now?
A: I grew up Philadelphia and got my love of cooking from my Italian grandmother. She has been my inspiration for all things food. To this day, with children of my own, food is still a very big part of our family.

So after 30 years on the commercial side, I was ready for a new challenge. And, just as my grandmother inspired me, I want to inspire today’s youth to make healthier choices. This is what I’m passionate about. It’s what drives me.

Q: How are you working to improve the culinary side of the program at Vineland?
A: The support from my Sodexo direct supervisors—Purvesh Patel, Diana Criss and Ed Keena—has been extremely helpful. They encourage me to bring out the best flavors in the foods we procure and show kids that healthy doesn't mean boring and flavorless.

Q: Can you give me an example?
A: Vegetables and fruits get a bad rap, especially in school foodservice. We want to turn that around. We mix black beans with fresh, colorful ingredients that are familiar to kids. The beans are incorporated—not hidden—and the students not only eat them, but they enjoy them. I’ve even had some say, “Wow, I didn't know I would like this!"

Vineland Public School’s new Executive Chef, Mark Daino (right), makes tomato sauce for an upcoming meal.
There’s no better validation than that.
A: We love food that makes us feel good. And we eat with our eyes first. So taste must match visuals. As adults, we demand this, so why shouldn't kids be given the same courtesy? It's my mission to make food a hands-on, enjoyable adventure for our students.

Q: One of the ways you’re planning to do this is with more display cooking, right?
A: Display cooking is one of my specialties, and the banquet field is all about action stations right now. Clients love to watch their food prepared for them.

Q: So do kids.
A: Exactly.

Q: Have you done any demos yet?
A: We have! Earlier this year, I demonstrated how to make black bean dip. Before the demo, the kids wouldn’t touch the dip. After the demo, we served more than a gallon and a half over the course of three lunch periods.

Q: What did you pair with it?
A: A piece of toast, roasted peppers and diced tomatoes. It was a hit!

Q: Delicious. What made the dip demo—and the others that will follow—so successful?
A: Interaction is key. When kids can see how food is prepared, they begin to understand it on a different level. It makes sometimes obscure or new ingredients familiar and approachable. This leads to acceptance and a more open-minded approach to food.

Q: How do you think this will add value to the district?
A: Allowing kids to have a hand in a meal's creation is a win-win when it comes to inspiring more healthful eating. The more children we get to interact with, the better choices they will hopefully make across the board. It also gives them a greater sense of trust in school foodservice.

Q: Is the staff on board?
A: They are. These initiatives motivate our staff to challenge themselves and build on all the feedback, both good and not so good. Together we will make Vineland’s school foodservice even more exciting.

TAGS: K-12 Schools
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