Setting the food-service standard

Rotating last month through a room filled with vendors at a school food conference, Glendale Community College nutrition instructor Sona Donayan was bombarded with information about packaging, delivery and pricing.

Nutrition facts were harder to come by.

“They give a lot of incentives, freebies, samples, good prices for highly processed, unhealthy foods,” Donayan said. “[Cafeteria] workers don’t really need to develop any skills if everything delivered is prepackaged and frozen and all you need to do is throw it in the oven, heat it up and call it a meal. A lot of that goes on.”

Properly educated and trained food handlers are necessary to ensure school-provided meals meet the nutritional standards of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — required in order for districts to be reimbursed for free and reduced-cost meals — while also appealing to children, she said.

And now, Donayan and her colleagues at Glendale Community College’s California Professional Nutrition Education and Training Center are developing a curriculum that will help set statewide standards for school food service workers.

Next month, the center will launch the second phase of Starting Right in Child Nutrition Programs, a multi-year project funded by the California Department of Education under the umbrella of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign.

It is meant to serve as a model on how to educate cafeteria workers and their managers on federally mandated nutrition guidelines, safety standards and best practices. And often, the cafeteria workforce is disengaged, Donayan said.

“They are recruited to come and serve at given times during the day,” she said. “They do the job, they go home, which gives them no real-life incentive to further themselves. There is no career ladder to climb.”

Senior food service managers often have backgrounds in finance and business, rather than nutrition, Donayan said. In fact, much of the decision making surrounding school food services revolves around cost and convenience, she added.

During the first phase of the Starting Right in Child Nutrition Programs project, executed during the 2008-09 academic year, the college team educated five groups from different regions across the state. The next phase, which will continue to June 2013, will include eight groups and focus heavily on curriculum development. They will then be tasked with returning to their home regions and passing on the knowledge and skills learned.

Simple tricks like marinating, caramelizing, browning or seasoning can enhance the taste and appeal of food, said Glendale Community College culinary instructor Andrew Feldman, who helped develop the “Healthy Cuisine for Kids” course, one of many coming out of the project.

“What we are trying to do is introduce different cooking techniques that improve the quality of the food — the flavor, the appearance, the selection — so front-line school lunch employees can cook better,” Feldman said.

Parents and food handlers need to demonstrate healthy eating habits in order to market good diets to children, he added.

“Kids look to adults for modeling, and if school lunch employees look down on the food, [or] don’t promote the food, the kids are going to pick up signals like that,” Feldman said. “Also presentation — we eat with our eyes first, so the food has to be presented in a manner that is attractive.”

Eventually, what is being done at Glendale Community College will be replicated at other campuses, Donayan said.

“I can already see a trend there,” Donayan said. “I can see that the day will come when there will be minimum standards to be hired as a food service worker in a school.”

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