Earlier this month, I shared with Lunch Tray readers a New York Times piece on the state of school food in the Trump administration. Times reporter Kim Severson mentioned in passing that Chef Ann Cooper, a pioneer in school food reform, was about to launch a series of video courses to help school professionals around the country bring more scratch-cooking to their meal programs.
Intrigued, I asked Mara Fleishman, Executive Director of the Chef Ann Foundation, if she’d come by and give TLT readers more information about this promising new initiative, called the School Food Institute.
Here’s our recent interview:
TLT: What was the impetus for starting the School Food Institute? How is it different or better than other training already out there?
MF: As we continued to support schools with resources and tools to try and help them move to scratch cooking, we kept running into districts that wanted more and more connection with Ann and feedback from Ann. While some school districts have been able to access the tools and resources on The Lunch Box and put them into use to create change, some districts were expressing a need for more direct interaction. Unfortunately we are not able to offer our School Food Support Initiative Grant to all school districts, as there is only funding for about 5-7 districts per year. The School Food Institute was a way to help bring the web-based resources and tools that we have for schools to life. Some people are able to read instruction and then implement, but for others it helps if someone is there to explain it to them. This gives folks who want the information verbalized a way to hear it straight from Ann, in her language and using examples from her work experience.
The School Food Institute is different in that it is the only online school food course series offered that exclusively focuses on operations through a cook from scratch lens. Every one of our courses from finance to procurement to marketing have been designed to support a cook from scratch program.
Additionally, the School Food Institute has utilized the most innovative technology in online learning platforms. We also offer office hours with Ann and direct access to SFI’s Teaching Assistant throughout the time you are taking the course. We have incorporated assignments that support real world learnings, whereas most online courses for school food service are simply an online video with a quiz.
TLT: Can parents benefit from the videos, or are they really just for school food professionals?
MF: This is such an interesting question. The School Food Institute was conceptualized as continuing education for school food service workers. The courses are very operationally focused and dig into the details. That being said, Chef Ann Foundation looks at school food a little differently than most. We understand that it’s not only about the food and operations but it’s also about how your school community thinks about the importance and value of food. This concept is really threaded throughout our courses. Once we created our School Food 101 course (which is an overview of all of the topic areas of our course series), I said this course would have been amazing for me when I was trying to change school food in Boulder Valley as a parent. It would have really helped me understand the obstacles and given me the language and understanding to speak to our food service team. When we shared the outline of this course with other parents that were trying to change school food in their communities, they felt very strongly that they would want to take this course to help them understand the landscape.
TLT: Do participants need to take all the modules or can they pick and choose?
MF: They do not need to take all the modules; they can take any single course they would like. However, we do have a SFI Certificate Program. You can earn a bronze certificate by completing School Food 101 and any other two courses of your choice; for a sliver certificate, you need to complete School Food 101 and any other four courses of your choice; and lastly, for the gold certificate you need to complete all eight courses.
TLT: In the section on School Food Finance (or elsewhere) do you address how schools might get outside funding to bolster their programs?
MF: In our School Food Finance course, we address how schools might use grants and fundraising to bolster their programs while transitioning to a healthier school food operation. We also address how to secure sponsorships from local businesses and vendors to market your school food program in the community in our Marketing and Lunchroom Education course. In both courses, Chef Ann shares specific tactics and examples from her own experience of how schools can start fundraising for their school food programs. There are so many grants out there and so many opportunities for additional funding, so we want to make sure schools know how to tap into those resources.
TLT: Do you think different regions of the country will engage more with the School Food Institute than others?
MF: I think that is yet to be seen. If we followed the stats of our grant programs, we would have to say that California would engage most. Even though we have grantees in every state, California is by far our biggest grant state. Therefore, we know that school food reform is has taken hold in California. We also know that state-based health foundations will play a large role in access. For instance, the Colorado Health Foundation has funded scholarships for all Colorado food service employees to take these courses for free. We know there are other state wellness foundations that have made significant change in their state’s school food and childhood wellness initiatives.
TLT: What do you hope participants will come away with after completing the courses?
MF: We think that folks will be taking these courses for different reasons depending on their role in school food or advocacy. For food service leadership (directors, managers, team leaders) we hope that these courses enable them to see the operational pathway to a healthier, fresh, ingredient-based, cook from scratch program. We also hope it provides them the added learning and support they need to incorporate the tools that we present, like the meals per labor hour spread sheet, or the salad bar assessment worksheet. For more entry level food service employees we hope that these courses inspire them and help them understand the possibilities in school food. For advocates we hope these courses provide them with the landscape of school food and what school food teams are up against – we hope they gain the knowledge they need to have constructive conversations with their districts.
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Many thanks to Mara Fleishman for coming by The Lunch Tray to tell us more about the School Food Institute. For more information about the program, or to enroll, visit this link.
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