When I first walked out of Roth Hall at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, N.Y. holding my culinary arts degree in my hands, you can bet that I didn’t see the position of director of culinary services for Sodexo Education-Schools in my future. I mean, who graduates from one of the top culinary schools in the country and wants to be the school lunch lady, right?
Last May, just over 20 years later, I found myself standing at a podium at the CIA’s Greystone Campus in St. Helena, Calif., kicking off Sodexo’s first ever K-12 Culinary Research and Development Conference. In the audience were chefs from more than 20 national food manufacturers as well as many of our own chefs and dietitians from Sodexo-served school districts, where we provide more than 2.5 million meals every day.
Our goal was to work together to create a diverse set of healthy, delicious and nutritious recipes specifically designed with kids in mind. As a team, we wanted to develop dishes that begin to introduce global flavors to our tiny customers while also offering healthier versions of other regional favorites.
At the very core of our mission was a desire to increase our dependency on whole grains for texture and flavor while continuing to decrease the fat, sugar, and salt in the meals we serve. Together we created amazing dishes like Fantastic Stuffed Mushrooms, Maple Granola Crusted Sweet Potatoes, Mediterranean Lentil Soup, and Moroccan Apricot Chicken.
At the three-day conference, our chefs and our manufacturing partners made a commitment to each other to make the food kids like to eat healthier. We were not dealing with little no-name manufacturers that no one has ever heard of, but household names like General Mills, Kellogg’s, Uncle Ben’s, and Dole. These are school food suppliers with the power and, more importantly, the desire to improve school nutrition not only for Sodexo-served schools, but students nationwide.
At the end of the conference, I took a red-eye flight home so that I could be there to pick up my 2-year-old son Max from daycare. As I carted him, squirming, into our van, he started digging into my laptop bag and came out with a bag of crackers that I had “appropriated” from one of our vendors. With a delighted look on his face, he said, “Ooh, you brought me a present! Open it, open it!” And open it I did, happy in the knowledge that he was eating something that was whole grain, low in sugar, fat, and sodium, and, as far as Max was concerned, made just for him.
Being the school lunch lady is awesome!
Lisa Feldman is a Certified Research Chef and a director of culinary services for Sodexo Education-Schools