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.
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!.