When students return to Cecil County schools this fall, they’ll probably notice a school lunch menu with a little more flavor in it thanks to a culinary boot camp program this summer.
School cafeteria workers from each of Cecil County’s public middle and high schools completed a weeklong scratch-cooking “boot camp” on Tuesday that was funded by the state department of education.
Teams of three cafeteria workers worked to prepare two menu items with a surprise added ingredient on Tuesday in order to test the skills learned during the boot camp, said Scott Heckert, assistant in Cecil County Public Schools Food & Nutrition department.
“All of the employees were taught scratch cooking techniques including chopping, seasoning, preparing, cooking, presenting, etc. over the past week with the help of University of Delaware chefs Joe DiGregorio and Debbie Ellingsworth,” Heckert said. “Our goal is to train them with this program and then send them back to their kitchens to train their colleagues.”
The team of Kim Mullens, from Boehmia Manor middle and high schools, Donna McCardell, from Rising Sun High School, and Julie Jackson, from Perryville High School, worked diligently in the kitchen at Elkton High School on Tuesday to prepare a chicken and biscuits meal.
The judges said they were especially impressed by the team’s ability to “work on the fly,” taking a box of fresh blueberries in the freezer and turning it into a homemade blueberry vinaigrette for a spinach salad.
Stewart Eidel, chief of the professional development section of school and community nutrition programs, said Cecil County is one of four counties in the state undergoing a “boot camp” this summer funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture “Cook Smart” grant.
“Typically, schools don’t prepare from scratch for school lunches; they use prepared foods,” he said Tuesday. “In the next two years, however, we are going to be rolling out the scratch cooking program to all school systems.”
Heckert said the goal this school year would be to include at least one food item made from scratch in three out of five school days.
“It is something we’re going to infuse into our menus, but not something we can change in one day,” he said. “As we give them the skills and resources, however, their confidence will grow and we can do more scratch cooking.”
“The excitement and energy level that we have seen from the employees this past week has been incredible,” Eidel added.
Part of the boot camp also focused on creating an appealing presentation for the students to encourage them to try new foods.
“We eat with our eyes,” Eidel said. “Presentation of the food is very important. We asked the employees to think of the food as if they were the student. Evaluate it as if you were a customer. Would you eat it? Would you pay for it?”
Heckert said he was especially proud to see that his teams bonded and were sharing ways to sell the homemade meals as a positive alternative to students.
“We want our cafeteria workers to relay a positive message about the food, especially to our younger students, to ensure they are eating a healthy and balanced meal,” he said. “We want the attitude behind the food line. Our cafeteria workers are educators too and they help students understand what it is to eat healthy.”
Heckert said CCPS planned to expand the scratch-cooking “boot camp” to elementary school cafeteria staffs next summer.