For the past eight weeks (and weekends!) I’ve been busily preparing for our big/mandatory food service program audit. The amount of work that goes into the preparation is immense to say the least! I know it will get easier in the years to come, but since this is my first one, I’m putting my entire self into it and learning a lot!
Most of what I’m learning is incredibly helpful and will help our new ARPS Food Service department become a second-to-none Child Nutrition Program. We are creating new recipes and updating our existing ones, which is very time consuming but improves our organization as a whole.
Throughout the past eight weeks, I’ve also gotten an in-depth understanding the school meal pattern guidelines for each grade level. It is complex, but offers some flexibility and is certainly a fun challenge. However, I have learned how difficult it is to create and execute our from-scratch recipes from a meal compliance standpoint. Here's an example.
Big food companies have designed products specifically for K-12 schools to fit within the strict meal pattern guidelines. Popcorn chicken is one example. When we serve it on the menu, 10 pieces of popcorn chicken yields 2oz of whole grain and 2oz of protein. It is a very simple menu item for our staff, as the product just needs to be baked in the oven and put onto the meal line. Pair it with a ½ cup fruit or vegetable and it is a reimbursable meal. It's very easy to be in compliance!
Compare this to one of our new from-scratch recipes. Chicken biryani is a Project Bread recipe that is currently being served at ARMS and ARHS and was taught to our staff by Chef Sam Icklan. There are many more steps involved in preparing this, but staff also needs to be trained on the proper portion size when serving kids. The correct scoop must be used (a #8 scoop) and each scoop must be the same/level so it’s exactly a ½ cup serving per child. If the staff serves a “heaping” scoop then we are over-serving and out of compliance! We must fall within a certain range of calories, saturated fat, and sodium each week.
The school food ecosystem is so complex and under such strict guidelines that it’s very easy to be out of compliance. If our audit finds we are out of compliance during our 1 week that we're reviewed, then we will have correction actions that must be taken otherwise we will face fiscal action.
I believe there is a lot of fear built into this system. Food Service Director’s don’t want to look incompetent to their bosses and their community, and they/we certainly don't want a financial penalty! Therefore, it is much “safer” to serve these easy, out-of-the-box menu items (chicken patties, mozzarella sticks, burgers, etc.) These meet the nutritional requirements and don’t require much staff training. I believe the school food ecosystem is underachieving in this regard as it discourages creativity and innovation due to the immense amount of time and effort it takes to properly execute a from-scratch recipe.
In order for our ARPS Food Service program to achieve our far-reaching goals, I’m certainly going to need some help! It will take a dedicated team and a community effort to transform our program into a top notch K-12 school food program. I want our menus to reflect our community’s values and be something that our kids, parents, and teachers are all proud of. To accomplish this, I’m envisioning a dedicated, full-time Chef to support with the menu design, staff training, and quality control, plus a Dietician to ensure all meals fit within the strict K-12 school meal pattern requirements.
I haven’t even spoken about all other pieces that we are being audited on! This includes the free/reduced application process and meal benefit issuance, verification process, reimbursements, civil rights compliance, offer vs. serve policy, production records, professional standards for all our kitchen staff, the district's wellness policy and assessment, plus much more!
This audit has been an incredible learning experience and has given me an in-depth view into the K-12 school food ecosystem. I will come out of this audit much stronger and knowledgeable about the challenges and opportunities ahead. After December, we should have 3 more years before we have our next mandatory audit.
I’m looking forward to finding ways of staying creative while still being in compliance with all these regulations and guidelines. Learning is power and we are truly on a path together toward greatness. I’m beyond excited for what the future can look like here in the ARPS kitchens and cafeterias! Our kids and the community deserves the best food that schools can offer, and I'm fully on-board to help make that happen.
We just had our annual "turkey dinner day" on Thursday, November 16. Our kitchen staff worked for days to prepare the local red bliss mashed potatoes (from scratch!), stuffing, gravy, and the turkey roast. Each school had an apple bake dessert, also from scratch. Here are some of the comments we received:
"I cannot tell you enough how much our kids went crazy over the turkey meal."
"Seriously, I have been in the system for 30 years and this was the best turkey meal and I have had!
I am so proud of our amazing ARPS Food Service staff for all of their hard work. The pride that everyone takes in preparing the meals each day, in all 5 of our kitchens, is truly inspiring to me. I think this picture sums up what I think of our great kitchen staff.
Shout to each of you this week at:
Cider Glazed Squash
We have one more holiday meal coming up in December. Be sure to try it out if you missed this first one. I can attest to how delicious and nourishing it is! Onward. -RH
Today was quite an exciting, eventful, and fulfilling day! It was a total culmination after many months spent planning, planting, growing, tending, watering, harvesting, and now enjoying the fruits of our labor. This was truly a community effort, and the saying "many hands makes light work" is probably an understatement in this particular instance.
It all started last year, before I was even an employee in the district. Teachers, staff, and students were beginning to prepare the beds and plant seeds in the Crocker Farm, Wildwood, and Fort River Elementary School gardens. Over the summer while students were on summer vacation, dedicated students and staff took turns watering, weeding, and maintaining the gardens. When students returned in the fall, the seeds had developed into full blown vegetables!
When the school year began, we had already begun thinking about ways to utilize the bounty in our cafeterias. Before doing that, we checked with our local board of health inspector and she recommended an annual soil test at each of our garden sites. We worked with the UMass Soil Lab to get our soil tested, developed our own list of garden safety protocols, and began planning a celebration event and picking out a recipe. We picked October 26 and our recipe was a "Local Garden Soup" paired with a yummy grilled cheese sandwich.
Jennifer Reese, Science Specialist and Garden Coordinator for Amherst Public Schools, and garden educator Leila Tunnell organized a big harvest day with students at each school during the last week of September. In all, over 115 pounds of butternut and delicata squash, carrots, beets, scallions, beans, and sugar pumpkins were harvested for delivery to the cafeterias.
I couldn't be more happy with how today went. There were literally hundreds community members - students, parents, teachers, kitchen staff, and administrators - who were all involved in different aspects of this day. For me personally, I thought about all the time, energy, and love that went into growing, preparing, and cooking today's meal. The ARPS kitchen staff did a truly remarkable job making the tastiest "local garden vegetable soup" that I've ever had. This is the first of hopefully many collaborations between our Schools Gardens Program and our new in-house ARPS Food Service program. Great job today, everyone!
Today was a huge step forward! The ARPS Food Service staff seems to be getting into a good rhythm and things have been going much more smoothly this month. It's fairly typical for everything to be quite hectic during the first month of school, but this year was particularly challenging due to the sheer number of changes happening within ARPS Food Service. Some of the big changes include a new employer (the Town, since we are no longer contracted with Whitsons), a new Collective Bargaining Contract, 100% new food/beverage vendors, more than a dozen new recipes, 25% new staff across the department, and a brand new Director of Food Service. Wow! That would be a lot for any staff member at any organization to handle.
However, from the outside looking in, my staff make it look easy. I've already heard so many positive statements and observations from ARPS parents, staff, and community members about how different things feel, look, and taste this year! I couldn't be more excited about this.
Today we had our monthly Kitchen Manager's meeting. The goal of this meeting is to bring together our senior leaders in the department to discuss the menus, recipes, any upcoming events, and other topics that the kitchen staff might want to discuss. I've gotten into the habit of preparing a draft menu (1 month ahead) and today we looked at the November menus. The 5 kitchen managers give their feedback to me, propose changes, and we make them together in real-time. This two-way communication is important for having the team be more empowered and encouraged to share their ideas and concerns with their peers and myself.
Last month I learned how the September menu was particularly challenging for them on certain days/weeks. The kitchen managers provided me with some great feedback for the October menu, and today they said that things were going a lot better this month! I couldn't be happier knowing that my staff are less stressed and more excited about coming to work each day. It is a delicate balance of implementing more from-scratch meals, made with local ingredients, while also considering the staff's morale and energy.
In short, I have a super-team here within ARPS Food Services. They are all doing so well considering the many changes that were presented to them this year. I couldn't be more proud of them. Together, we'll keep making more changes to improve all aspects of the ARPS Food Service program, and the best is definitely still to come! Stay tuned.
Recently I was notified that the Amherst, Pelham, and Amherst-Pelham Regional School (all 3 of our districts) will be getting an administrative review this year. In short, that means a comprehensive audit from the state, which occurs every three years. I recently learned first-hand that this is no small feat!
Yesterday I spent the day at Holyoke Community College at an all-day training with the Department of Education. We covered all the regulations and requirements associated with meal access and reimbursement, meal pattern and nutritional quality, general program compliance, financial resource management, and procurement. If I said that these topics are complex, it would be an understatement!
As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog entry, K-12 school food is the most regulated part of the entire food system. There are rules for the minimum and maximum amount of grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables, and milk that we serve each day and each week. There are strict rules about where and how we can purchase those foods and it takes quite a bit of time to open each individual Purchase Order that follows the state-mandated procurement (purchasing) practices.
To navigate all of these regulations takes a great deal of time, knowledge, and positivity above all else. It’s easy to feel bogged by all of the bureaucracy and red tape that comes with the school food industry. Yet at the end of the day, these are all #adultproblems. It’s not fair to the kids and families in our district to use this as an excuse for not serving healthy, local, and delicious meals each day.
Staying positive is key. Keeping the ship moving forward is my directive. It might be bumpy waters at times, since so many things need special attention all at once. However, I want to assure you that each day our children will be offered a nutritious and delicious meal that is cooked by our phenomenal kitchen staff.
This year certainly has its fair share of challenges ahead, especially now with a 6-day (minimum!) state-mandated audit on the horizon. But that cannot and will not stop us from achieving our vision. Together, we will continue making improvements to our school meals here in the Amherst, Pelham, and the Amherst-Pelham Regional Schools. The best is still to come!
The speed at which things move, in the Food Service Director world, is beyond what I could even imagine! It's exciting, fun, and exhausting all at the same time. I find it difficult to describe actually, because although each day is extremely fast-paced - going from one meeting, e-mail, or situation to the next - the change I'd like to see are happening very slow. It's a paradox of sorts.
The challenges are many and my time is very limited. But I don't want to lose the optimism that I started this job with. I believe in my heart that school food can be exciting, appealing, healthy and delicious each day.
I was advised by a mentor to focus on and achieve small wins in my first year here as Director of Food Service for Amherst-Pelham Schools. I think we've already had a number of these wins so far, and I'd to share some of them to document what's been happening so far in the new ARPS Food Services:
This is only the tip of the iceberg, as we already have added many new recipes to our menus each month. We now have weekly taste-tests happening in our cafeterias; on Mondays Chef Sam will be at Amherst Regional Middle School, and on Tuesdays he'll be working at Amherst Regional High School!
The best is definitely still to come, and it's important to celebrate the small wins as well as the big ones. Over time, these small successes can really add up, and I'm confident that we'll one day be looking back and realizing how far we've truly come! Stay tuned for more updates soon. Onwards. -RH
My name is Ryan Harb and this blog is one that I feel compelled to write at this unique time in my life as a new K-12 school Food Service Director. I came into this job about 4 months ago with an excitement, open mind, and a passion for positively changing our food system. I believe that all students deserve access to healthy, flavorful, and authentic meals that are made from-scratch with local and whole ingredients. Kids especially need these healthy meals each day as they are expected to focus, learn, and be successful both inside and outside of the classroom. School food, therefore, must be appealing, exciting, and delicious!
Seems simple enough, doesn't it? That's what I initially thought, too, and I still believe that in my heart. However, there are many (many!) challenges in the K-12 school food ecosystem that folks (including myself) have no idea about until stepping into the role of a K-12 Food Service Director. My job is to work within the existing system to improve school meals here in the Amherst-Pelham schools. But I've quickly realized that public school food is the most regulated part of the food system. It's going to take some time for me to learn the in's and out's of what our government allows us to purchase, cook, and serve to students each day.
Before going any further, I want to share some of my intentions for this blog. Sometimes I will be blogging about my struggles as a new Director who's working within a highly regulated ecosystem. At times I might come across as complaining, although that is certainly not my intent. Rather, I'm trying to show a vulnerable side with this blog, and that's something that many people in my life rarely see.
Most of the other pages on this ARPS Food Services site will focus on the program's successes, because it's my job after all to get our community excited about school food! There are so many opportunities to make school food both nutritious and delicious, and I can't wait to share some of those stories, recipes, and meals with you as well!
I'm going to wrap this one up by sharing with you my goal. I aim to share these real life trials and tribulations with you all on a weekly basis. My goal is to post one new blog entry per week, on average, and the toughest part of that will be finding the time. At the present moment, time is 100% my limiting factor in this job. Today I felt totally overwhelmed trying to get through my piles of vendor invoices, purchase orders, voicemails and e-mails. These are the things that drive me crazy, but have to get done in order to build a second to none Child Nutrition Program here in Amherst, MA. The program far from perfect right now, but that will absolutely change over time.
Please consider reading on and following this blog as I navigate this complicated K-12 school food ecosystem. Who knows, maybe you'll get inspired to get involved, send me an e-mail with a question, recipe, suggestion, or positive note. I'm open to all of it, folks. Together, we can absolutely change school food for the better, and put Amherst, Massachusetts on the K-12 school foodservice map. Years from now, I hope we'll all look back on this first blog entry with a smile at how far we've come.
Welcome Back! From the New ARPS Food Services
View or download the FY18 Parent Pack and FY18 Free/Reduced School Meal application in English or en Espanol.
Welcome to our new website for Amherst, Pelham, and Amherst-Pelham Regional School Food Services! My name is Ryan Harb and I am the new Director of Food Services. I am truly excited by this unique opportunity to transform our food services program into a model that prides itself on providing healthy, local, delicious, and diverse meals to all students, every day. This is the first year of a long-term revitalization effort that aims to reflect the values and principles of our community. I am humbled and grateful to help lead this effort and at the same time it's a much bigger job than any one person can do on their own. Only by working together can our food program truly transform and achieve its highest potential. If you want to become involved in this community effort and if have even a small amount of time, please contact me! Together, we can truly make our food services program into a model for healthy, local, flavorful, and authentic meals.