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Why is EdNC going to Italy? Innovative N.C. K-12 Culinary Institute increases school meal appeal

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Last summer, I visited the Perquimans County School System, known locally as PQ Schools.

Kim Cullipher became the school nutrition director for PQ Schools one week before the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in March 2020. 

Tanya Turner, the superintendent, said Cullipher took a very good nutrition program and transformed it into a great one.

Leaders from around the state visit PQ Schools to learn about this nutrition program from how they market school meals, to building excitement for child nutrition, to serving farm to table options to students.

Increasing school meal appeal isn’t just happening in PQ Schools.

“Since the N.C. K-12 Culinary Institute was launched in 2016, more than 1,360 school nutrition professionals have graduated as culinary specialists from school food authorities statewide, including traditional public school units, charter schools, non-public schools, and residential child-care institutions,” according to a press release by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI).

Courtesy of N.C. DPI

School nutrition managers from across North Carolina have the opportunity to participate in regional N.C. K-12 Culinary Institute workshops this summer, including:

  • June 25-27 | Alexander County Schools and Pitt County Schools;
  • July 9-11 | Columbus County Schools;
  • July 23-25 | Northampton County Schools;
  • July 30-August 1 | Cherokee County Schools; and
  • August 6-8 | Alamance-Burlington School System.

“Appealing meals that are filling and nutritious help students focus,” said Dr. Lynn Harvey, senior director of the DPI’s Office of School Nutrition. “The North Carolina K-12 Culinary Institute provides school nutrition professionals with tools and information they can take back and implement in their school nutrition programs to ensure students receive the meals they need to succeed in and out of the classroom.”

According to the press release, the Office of School Nutrition worked with Chef Cyndie Story and her nationally-accomplished K-12 Culinary Team to ensure the institute meets five core objectives:

  1. Improve student health, well-being, and academic success through nutritious, appealing meals at school.
  2. Increase participation in high quality, enticing school nutrition programs.
  3. Expand capacity of local school nutrition programs to purchase, prepare, and serve fresh, locally grown produce.
  4. Increase consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grain-rich foods.
  5. Provide continuing education opportunities for school nutrition personnel.

The workshops are three days and include interactive classroom and in-kitchen instruction, for example knife skills, weighing and measuring accurately, preparing foods for just-in-time service, work simplification and scheduling, effective use of equipment, and quality food preparation and service for a variety of meats, grains, fruits, vegetables, and condiments.

Participants graduate as chef ambassadors and culinary specialists. Embodying a teach-it-forward philosophy, the ambassadors are charged with teaching skills learned during the workshops to other school nutrition professionals at the local district or school level.

“The teach-it-forward model of instruction and learning is based on four fundamental principles of learning: knowledge transfer, demonstration, practice and feedback; also referred to as know, show, do, and coach,” says DPI’s website.

“Providing school nutrition professionals with needed equipment, educational resources, and skills can positively impact the preparation, service, and consumption of school meals,” says the press release.

With the N.C. K-12 Culinary Institute, over 200 recipes have been developed for school meals in North Carolina, featuring whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, and locally grown ingredients. The menus and recipes developed include scratch, convenience and modified scratch products and techniques, instructions written for production amounts consistent with pack or pan sizes commonly available in school kitchens, and nutritional analysis files for easy import into software programs and adjustments for standardization in schools. A family resource offers a collection of the N.C. K-12 Culinary Institute recipes that students and their families can prepare at home.

— DPI press release

Here is the teach-it-forward guide.

Here are the recipes for you to try and share! Note that some include videos.

Knowing that finding large blocks of time for training can be challenging, the institute created 10 mini-units called short sets on topics covered in the workshops. Each short set can be presented in 15 minutes and includes a “plan it” page as well as instructional resources. You can find the short set modules here.

In an unexpected but very fun turn of events, I will be attending the Italian Cuilinary Institute to learn about the evolution of the country’s cuisine from Sept. 14-28, 2024. We hope all of the nutrition directors and chef ambassadors will follow along in this learning journey. Until then, I’ll be practicing my knife skills. Stay tuned!

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.