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Q&A: Promoting student health through serving fresh and local food in the cafeteria

Chef Nate Bates at Boyne Falls

Cindy Pineda is the superintendent and K-12 administrator for Boyne Falls Public School and Nate Bates is the chef at Boyne Falls. Together, they work to serve fresh and local ingredients through their food service program for breakfasts and lunches.
What’s the process of choosing what to serve the students?
Cindy: The process mostly falls on Chef Nate, who is a classically trained chef. He focuses on nutritional values when he sets the breakfast and lunch menu. Over the course of several years, he has developed relationships with local farms and he started using these fresh, local ingredients in the food that he serves. He tries to tailor the menu to what is seasonal. A good example of this is in the fall, there is an abundance of apples and a place less than a mile away is where we get them. Nate tries to rely on what the farmers are bringing to him.
Nate: I try to focus on serving students a variety day-to-day, but then also try to focus on making protein the center of the plate. I enjoy purchasing fresh ingredients from local farmers and that’s what I am used to doing, so it wasn’t that much of a stretch for me.
Why is choosing what to serve students so important?
Cindy: Buying fresh and local costs us more money to feed our kids, but it’s important to the health and well-being of our students. And this program is certainly doable for any district. About 60 percent of our students receive free or reduced lunch, therefore we are very focused on the health and wellness of our students. We have a wellness committee and a school nurse who comes in two days a week. Nate is on the wellness committee and the whole idea behind it is not just to address academic needs or nutritional needs, but overall health needs as well. We want to give our kids the best quality of food that we can afford. As we try to address every aspect of the child, wholesome, local food can help in terms of their brain function.
Nate: Nobody needs fresh, nutritional food more than kids. Our theory is that we shouldn’t be using apples from Washington when they are right here in our own community, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s easy to use local, nutritious foods. It’s so rewarding knowing the kids got at least two good meals a day from school.
What effects have you seen from this program?
Cindy: First, our kids are a lot more adventurous eaters. They are always eating different kinds of produce. Farmers will deliver vegetables that the kids aren’t really familiar with, but are willing to try. It’s opening up a whole new world for them. We have also found that more of our students are eating breakfast, which is important to get their body started in the mornings. They are more alert in the classrooms because of these foods we are feeding them. In terms of the nutritional value of food, fresh veggies and fruits have great benefits and nutritional value. They aren’t leaving the cafeteria lethargic; they are getting the fresh stuff.
I definitely think our school has better relationships now with local farmers and we are not shy about letting our students know they are eating local. We even purchased a pig locally! If you were to ask the kids where our food comes from, they would know some of the names of the farms, which is pretty cool. It’s important to us that the kids can identify the source of their food. We also have a greenhouse that the kids have had a hand in helping grow some of the food. This way, the kids get to see the entire process. There are some great lessons there -- being able to grow the food, touch it and then ultimately taste it.
Nate: Well-fed kids learn better. We want to be able to expose them to things they may not eat at home. I think this exposure is widening their palate, as well as increasing participation in eating fresh, nutritional foods.
How do you keep up with food regulations?
Cindy: I think using locally grown food eliminates some of those regulation hurdles. I know Nate has to watch portion control, but because we have such a focus on local and fresh, it does eliminate certain concerns. We make sure to watch sugar content and have a policy about sweets. We want to cut out sweets, but we do it in an encouraging and positive way. For example, with our holiday parties, we encouraged parents to send in fruit plates instead of cookies or sweets. I was pleased when I walked around to the different classrooms, the last day before break, to see that this was actually executed.
Nate: The biggest issue we have to focus on with food regulations is counting calories. We do a salad bar every day with fresh fruit and vegetables, which really helps with our calorie and produce requirements.
What have the reactions to this program been?
Cindy: We are getting some great reactions from parents and the community. Some of the parents, who may not have purchased lunches before for their child, now are starting to. The community will also come in and buy lunches from us. The food is cooked well, it tastes good and they know that it’s great quality.
Nate: More kids want to eat here and funding comes from that. A lot of what we are doing is dependent on fundraising for the food service program. I see a lot of fundraising going on all of the time, which is great. We are the only school that I know of that is actively seeking money for their food service program.
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