• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Staff makes meals more appealing, convenient

Overseeing food services in Woodford County schools has many similarities to running a restaurant. "We've got to (make) our customers happy and we have to get them eating," said food service coordinator Courtney Quire. "Otherwise - just like in a restaurant - we won't succeed." Federal reimbursements for free- and reduced-meal students (and to a much lesser extent, students who buy meals) help pay operating expenses, but Quire knows the importance of gearing menus to the differing tastes of students, she said. One focus in recent years has been boosting the number of students eating breakfast. At Woodford County High School, a "second-chance breakfast" has increased school breakfast participation three-fold, "but we still have a lot of room to grow," said Quire. She said 460 students qualify for free meals, but only 300 breakfasts are being served to all students - not just those who qualify for free meals - on a typical morning at WCHS. "All of our schools have a lot of room for improvement with breakfast, as far as those numbers go," said Quire. She said the number of students eating breakfast at the elementary schools varies from around 90 to up to 160. On average, a total of about 1,200 students will eat a school breakfast each morning in Woodford County schools, Quire said. The "second-chance breakfast" has become popular among high school students because they get their meal after a first block class, "when they are ready to eat," said assistant food service coordinator Lee Ann Connor. During this 10-minute break between classes, students can pick up their breakfasts at the cafeteria, a station near the front office or one upstairs, before eating breakfast in their classrooms, she said. "It's a complete, filling breakfast - not just a snack," said Connor. She said options include hot breakfast sandwiches, fruit, juice and milk. Students "don't want to eat first thing in the morning," said WCHS Principal Rob Akers. "And we've got some kids who religiously eat that second chance breakfast. It's a nice thing to offer." Eating breakfast at school also gives a parent "one less thing to do in the morning" and "will help prepare students for the day (by getting them ready to learn), and that's the main goal," said Connor. She said options being considered at the middle school for next school year are a "second-chance breakfast" or offering breakfast to students as they get off their school buses in the morning. With very strict federal guidelines on how much fat and sodium are allowed in a student meal, "... We are trying to put out food that students like and will eat, but our hands are kind of tied with some things ... because we have to be compliant with the guidelines in order to get the (federal) reimbursement," Connor said. On average, a high school lunch must contain no more than 1,500 milligrams of sodium - less than the 5,000 milligrams in a teaspoon - with a reduction of another 300 milligrams next school year, according to Quire and Connor. An elementary lunch will have less sodium (about 860 milligrams). "Even our fresh vegetables have sodium. Celery sticks have 150 milligrams of sodium. And we want to encourage fresh fruits and vegetables," said Connor. One of the ways cafeterias are reducing sodium in student meals is by using natural ingredients - such as a fresh chicken breast - instead of using prepackaged and processed foods, Connor said. Fresh toppings are added to pre-made pizza crusts to create "a more homemade item, which is lower in sodium," she said. "And the (cafeteria) staff has embraced that (approach) ... and will continue that (trend of using more homemade items)." Ideas for next school year include making "gourmet barbecue chicken" or "taco" pizzas, she added. "It's just a little bit more time-consuming (to prepare meals using fresh ingredients), but the benefit is the taste is better, the kids enjoy it more," Woodford County Middle School's cafeteria manager Patricia O'Nan said. "We want all the children to eat." An average of about 2,200 students eat school lunches each day in Woodford County schools, where foods are baked, steamed and roasted. If students don't want to eat the hot meals being served, they have the option of choosing a salad or a sandwich. "So we try to have choices that will appeal to everybody," said Connor. She said students must choose a fruit or vegetable with a school meal so "we try to offer fruits and vegetables that they like. Offering carrots with ranch dip, makes it a little more appealing." Making sure vegetables are not overcooked also makes them more appealing to students. "Kids are becoming more aware of what they eat," said Quire. "...They do want to eat better. They might still really enjoy pizza and burgers, but it's kind of trendy to have humus and carrot dip." Quire, who was district chef before becoming food service coordinator in January 2016, and Connor both went to culinary school and worked in the restaurant industry before coming to the Woodford County schools. "She was a wonderful find," said Quire of Connor, who had 13 years of experience in school food service and a culinary degree when she was hired as assistant food service coordinator last June. Her primary responsibilities are "menu planning and working with the staff in a cafeteria to help improve the food," said Quire, who earned a culinary arts degree from Sullivan University. Having been a cafeteria manager in Fayette County schools for 13 years, Connor understands the challenges of managing a school cafeteria. She provides cafeteria staffers here with recipes to ensure specific nutritional guidelines are followed, but she also works alongside them because "hands-on training works a whole lot better than just handing them" a recipe to follow. Recipes with specific nutritional guidelines are especially important for students who have diabetes, according to Connor. Those students "need to know how many carbs they're eating every day so they know how much insulin they will need," she said. Food allergies and health conditions are other considerations when meals are prepared. "If we have a gluten-free student, if we have a lactose-intolerant student, we have to have food available for those students," Connor said. Quire said it's a lot easier tracking a food's exact nutrients when you buy something in a box with a label, but Connor said, "there's more creativity (with our recipes) than opening a box. We get to expand the creativity side as far as coming up with some from-scratch (recipes) that fit the (nutritional) requirements that kids will (also) eat." She described the from-scratch cooking used in Woodford County's school cafeterias as "a different approach from any other county in the state." A graduate of Johnson & Wales University's College of Culinary Arts in Providence, R.I., Connor said, "You need to take the techniques you learn in culinary school and apply it to school food service to make it appealing to the students." That's a challenge embraced by both Connor and Quire, who are also Woodford County High School graduates. "It's ... really rewarding when you go into a school and you see the menus that you've put together, and you see students running into the cafeteria excited," said Quire. A new initiative being explored by school food services: obtaining locally grown fruits and vegetables as ingredients for meals. Also, food services would like to expand its reach in the summer feeding program, which provides free meals to anyone in the community ages 18 and younger.

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