Who decides what food gets served at our school cafeterias? Where does the food come from? How is it prepared?
Recently, I chatted with Denise Agati, the Director of Child Nutrition at the Ithaca City School District. In her Boynton Middle School office — past the cafeteria, past the food service line, and inside the district’s central kitchen — Denise makes big decisions about food.
“It’s like a household,” Denise says. “You have to think about the food, the budget, labor involved, educating the kids.” And yet the job is so much more complicated than that.
Denise says she starts meal planning by looking at what she can purchase, starting with government commodities. She says the school receives $120,000 annual credit toward the commodities, and she has found that she can save money by using that credit for proteins like meats and cheeses — and then use that remainder for fresh fruits and vegetables when possible. In one cost-saving move, Denise said she realized that she could save $60,000 by buying ground beef instead of pre-made patties or meatballs. Also, she takes advantage of government specials, such as the 100 cases of chickpeas she purchase when they went on sale. She estimates that about 43% of her budget is spent on food, 40% on labor and benefits, and the remainder on equipment and supplies (compostable trays alone cost about $40,000 yearly). Working within the budget is one of the main challenges of the job, says Denise, and she’s proud that she can do it.
Another challenge is pleasing kids and making sure they eat. “I have fun with the menu,” Denise says, explaining that she tries to tempt kids to try new things by pairing a whole grain cookie, for example, with a more unusual item like pasta fazool, a bean and pasta dish. The most popular dishes on the menu are pizza and tacos. To help plan the menu, she uses a computer program that calculates the nutrition information for each recipe used in the school menu.
School food service has changed dramatically since Denise began working in the district 32 years ago. As a high school graduate, she worked at McDonald’s, where she learned about speed and efficiency. “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean,” she says, laughing at the memory. At the time, a friend mentioned that the school district offered great benefits. So Denise volunteered in a school kitchen briefly before being hired. From there, she worked her way up through management and civil service exams to become Director about seven years ago. “Growing up, my family cared about nutrition,” says says, adding that her family had a garden. And yet she also saw relatives experienced diet-related health problems, so she recognized the link between diet and health.
Responding to changing interests in food, Denise now includes a wider range of foods than ever before, such as meals made from dried beans, homemade soups, and whole baked sweet potatoes instead of fries. She praises the supervisors in each school who take the initiative to make their own improvements, for example, by adding fresh raw veggies in addition to the hot vegetable of the day. Now, kids can enjoy meals such as Chinese Golden Croquettes with Orange Ginger Sauce, North African Red Lentils, Pasta Fazool, and Ms. Patel’s Rajma — special recipes served on Thursdays as part of a partnership with The Coalition for Healthy School Food’s Cool School Food Project. Specifically, Ms. Patel’s Rajma’s recipe was developed by an employee of BJM. Another recipe developed at ICSD was chosen to appear in one of the USDA recipe books.
Denise also partners with nonprofits such as Wood’s Earth for the Fresh Snack Program. A few years ago, she even helped glean 2300 ears of corn from a farm field with Wood’s Earth to use in school food (She learned that she could husk 100 ears per hour). Also, the former chefs of Simeon’s Restaurant recently offered cooking classes to a group of eight students.
“We have a very supportive community here,” Denise says.
Image credit: Photo courtesy of the ICSD Child Nutrition Program