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!
Director of Food Service for Amherst, Pelham, and the Amherst-Pelham Regional School District. We'll be posting updates to the program as we go along!.