Like many of our Chef’s Training graduates, Chefs Liz Fleischman and Madea Allen are working to improve the quality, nutrition, and overall appeal of our nation’s school lunches. Both are chefs working with SchoolFood, the New York City Department of Education’s initiative “committed to promoting healthy food choices for our students and maintaining high nutritional standards while offering delicious, healthy, and satisfying menu options to reach this goal.” Here they share their experience of the past year giving high school salad bars a sometimes much-needed makeover.
We are both Chef’s Training graduates of Natural Gourmet Institute and are known around New York public high schools as the “Salad Bar Chefs.”
For the last year, we have worked in school kitchens to enhance salad bars as part of a project initiated by the NYC Department of Health and funded by the Center for Disease Control. The project’s aim is to make salad bars more appealing to young people so they eat more vegetables. If we achieve our goal, we can decrease the rate of obesity in this generation.
Many New Yorkers are surprised to learn that every New York public high school has a salad bar. They don’t know that cafeteria meals in New York public schools are some of the best in the country. For example, only whole grain bread and pasta is served, and no trans-fats, corn syrup, MSG or artificial colorings are allowed in any of the packaged products served to students. Fresh fruit is offered every day.
These standards might seem overly basic but, considering the state of food in most US schools, they’re very forward-thinking. It’s because of these changes made over the last decade that obesity rates among New York public school students have actually decreased. Even with this good news, however, everyone agrees there is still a lot of work to do.
School salad bar quality varies widely. Some are vibrant magnets for students who pile loads of greens and cucumbers onto their plates, while others are dull and stocked with unloved produce. Overall, most could use some improvement, even if it’s a small tweak, such as changing the salad bar unit’s location or offering a greater variety of dressings. It’s our job to hone in on what a particular school needs and to provide immediate solutions.
Each New York school salad bar features large pans of standard SchoolFood green salad (romaine, spinach, shredded carrots and red cabbage), smaller pans of cut garnishes (sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, etc.) and two or three prepared salads. The salad bars are vegan with a few exceptions.
Our job is to steer kitchen staff away from using mayonnaise-based salads and move them toward prepared salads with fresh herbs and bold flavors. For instance, we successfully influenced the decision to eliminate large tubs of pre-made, mayonnaise-based potato salad. In its place, we taught staff to prepare a delicious “Zesty Potato Salad” with roasted red potatoes, dill pickles, red onion, celery, fresh parsley and freshly made vinaigrette.
We visit a different cafeteria kitchen every two days, assessing the produce in the refrigerators, what’s available and how it’s stored. In kitchens that rely on a lot of processed and frozen foods, many staff members don’t know how to extend the life of fresh herbs or other fresh greens. We particularly emphasize the importance of proper storage and work with them to organize produce so it’s protected, organized and accessible. We also spend time talking to the cooks about their salad bar preparation routine and the popularity of certain items.
Once we investigate the situation, we get to work demonstrating new recipes, finding ways to work more efficiently, and training staff on equipment such as food processors and buffalo choppers that speed up vegetable prep. Many cafeteria staffers are short on time, working hard to get everything done by the first lunch service. Slicing 10 pounds of zucchini in a food processor instead of by hand saves enough time to prepare a fresh dressing or a bean salad with chopped herbs.
After we set up the renovated salad bar, we watch the action from behind the counter to see the students’ reactions to the makeover. If students ignored the salad bar every day since the start of school, they will take a second look when they see a colorful and fresh array of items. They usually comment on how it looks, and we encourage them to try something new, such as a healthy coleslaw or pasta salad with roasted vegetables and basil pesto. If we stay at a school one or two days longer to monitor what’s happening, we often see the students coming back for the new item they tasted and really liked.
At many schools, cafeteria staff tell us, “These kids don’t like salad.” But once we put out more fresh items or make a new salad, we often witness renewed interest. High school students today are savvy. They’ve seen shows on the Food Network that feature beautifully prepared salads, and they can discern a good salad bar from a neglected one. That’s why at every visit to a cafeteria, we keep the following 5 Keys to a Successful High School Salad Bar in mind:
- Make it colorful. Colorful salads entice students. They may not take every item on the salad bar, but they are drawn to it and usually find something that appeals to them.
- Make it fresh. It’s easy to rely on canned items when a kitchen is busy and under stress, but fresh produce is almost always more flavorful and colorful. Once in a while, a canned bean salad is great, but fresh produce is always best!
- Know the students’ preferences. In some schools, students don’t like red cabbage. Adding it to the salad mix can cause students to forego salad altogether. However, removing it can sometimes increase greens consumption. If you know your students’ preferences, you can target their favorite vegetables and focus your salad bar on those.
- Treat produce with care. Proper produce storage is vital to the long-term success of the salad bar. It guarantees less waste, making the salad bar financially viable for a kitchen manager.
- Use tasty dressings. Knowing how to make basic vinaigrette is vital for adding flavor to prepared salads. Once you know basic vinaigrette preparation, you can make many variations with added herbs, various vinegars and mustard.
When we are not busy providing culinary skills training to cafeteria workers, we lend our expertise and support to other projects and areas of SchoolFood. These include:
Garden to School Café: Garden to School Café is a program of NYC Department of Education, NYS Department of Agriculture & Markets and NYC Parks & Recreation, GreenThumb. The program connects school gardens and school meals through lunchtime harvest events and educational activities. The purpose is to increase students’ consumption of fresh vegetables and knowledge of healthful foods, farming and the local food system. Alongside the program coordinator, SchoolFood regional chefs and cafeteria workers, we assist with the harvesting of fresh herbs and vegetables as well as preparation of school meals using the produce.
Department of Health’s Healthy Bodegas Initiative: A sister CPPW project, the aim of this initiative is to increase healthier options at local bodegas, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grain bread, low-fat milk, low-salt and no-sugar-added canned goods and healthy snacks. During the summer months of 2010, we conducted 10 healthy food demonstrations at 4 bodegas in Morris Heights, Harlem and Bushwick. We showed customers quick and easy ways to prepare healthier recipes, all with food bought from the bodega. We created and gave samples of delicious recipes such as Black Bean Salad, Watermelon Pineapple Salad and Salmon Salad Sandwich.
Enhanced Inventory Program (EIP): In an effort to expose students to food items not normally associated with school lunch, the Enhanced Inventory Program allows school Principals to select items such as salmon, organic quinoa, grass-fed beef from a local NY state farm, virgin olive oil and organic legumes and to include them in their lunch menus. So these products could be easily integrated into the school lunch program by cafeteria workers, we modified existing SchoolFood recipes, wrote new recipes and tested them in the test kitchen.
It has been beyond rewarding to use our culinary training, knowledge and skills to increase accessibility of more nutritious, fresh food to youth in New York City. There’s more work to do in our school food system, both in New York City and throughout the nation. Hopefully, more students and graduates of Natural Gourmet will join us and seriously consider how they would improve the nutritional climate for the next generation.
Healthy Coleslaw with Honey Ginger Dressing
1 small head green cabbage, shredded
2 carrots, shredded
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
1 cup olive oil
Juice of 2 lemons
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1. In a large mixing bowl, toss cabbage, carrots, red onion and parsley. Mix well to combine ingredients thoroughly.
2. To a food processor, add olive oil, lemon juice, honey, soy sauce, ginger, garlic, salt and pepper. Process until dressing is thoroughly mixed and creamy. Adjust seasonings if necessary.
3. Toss salad with dressing. Chill for two hours. Serve with burger or wrap sandwich.
Zesty Potato Salad
2 lbs red potatoes, washed and scrubbed, large dice
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1 small red onion, small dice
2/3 cup dill pickle chips, medium dice
2 stalks of celery, small dice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2/3 cup white vinegar
½ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.
2. In a large mixing bowl, toss potatoes with olive oil, salt and black pepper. Spread potatoes evenly on sheet pan and roast in oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until potatoes are tender and slightly browned around edges.
3. Cool potatoes and toss with onion, pickles and celery.
4. To a food processor add vinegar, olive oil, mustard, salt and pepper. Process until ingredients become a uniform mixture.
5. Toss potatoes with vinaigrette. Garnish with parsley.