Fresher, tastier choices coming to school cafeterias this fall
This summer, approximately 400 school nutrition professionals from about 80 schools took advantage of regional training sessions offered at six sites statewide as part of the Cooking for Kids culinary training program.
“School meals have trended like our home meals with more fast food and convenience foods. Not only have our households lost cooking skills, our school nutrition professionals have, too,” said Deana Hildebrand, Oklahoma State University Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist. “Before we can expect our school nutrition professionals to prepare healthier food for our students and use more scratch cooking, we have to give them the skills. That’s what the regional trainings are designed to do.”
Level 1 of the regional trainings covered topics such as food safety and developing taste preferences for fruits and vegetables, while Level 2 addressed topics such promoting the cafeteria to students and building flavor without added sugar, fat and salt.
Beginning in 2016, schools with staff who have completed both levels of the regional training will be eligible for one-on-one consultations with a chef, who will work with schools on menus, creating marketing plans and other areas of development.
Cooking for Kids is rounding out the second year in a five-year partnership between the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service and Oklahoma State Department of Education funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The program was developed to help schools in Oklahoma implement revised nutritional requirements for school breakfasts and lunches as a result of the 2010 Healthy and Hunger Free Kids Act. Two long-term goals of the federal law are to reduce childhood hunger and address childhood obesity.
For some children, and especially those who are both food insecure and obese, school meals may be their primary source of nutrition, Hildebrand said. That means school meals need to be nutritious and taste good to children.
“Research shows partnering with chefs is a good way to change menus so they’re healthy and appealing to kids. We want to increase the number of kids eating in the cafeteria because it’s a low cost source of a healthy meal,” she said.
Extension and the Oklahoma State Department of Education collaborated with three lead chefs to develop the Cooking with Kids culinary curriculum.
Participation in the program, including the training and chef consultations, is free and open to all schools in Oklahoma.
“What makes Cooking for Kids so unique is that it’s open for all schools, including smaller school districts that may not be able to hire a corporate chef,” Hildebrand said. “The nutrition professionals who have participated in the training are excited about their new skills and they’re anxious to apply what they’re learning in the cafeteria.”
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