Now in its third year, The New Century School‘s Garden Tuck Shop Lunch Program has implemented some exciting new changes, a new lunch menu foremost among them. These modifications grew out of some parent and TNCS staff feedback that Chef Emma Novashinski used to enhance and refine her already popular program. Menus and newsletters will also be part of this relaunch to ensure that communication about her meals is precise and detailed. “This is exciting,” she says, “it’s a nice turning point that has renewed my vigor to figure out which direction to take the program in.” She calls her refreshed program “the cleanest kids’ lunch downtown”! By “clean,” she refers to the source of the foods she serves. The closer to you it originates, the cleaner (healthier) it is. Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg, PA provides local milk, produce and eggs come from nearby Tuscarora Farms, and fresh local bread comes daily from Cunningham’s Bakery in Towson.
In mid-November, Chef Emma began piloting a series of new lunches that assembled components most popular with former and existing program participants. Popularity was not the only prerequisite, however. Chef Emma’s primary target for this new lunch series was to include food items “high in both protein and lysine to have the full plate components that the kids need for lunch.” As before, the lunches are vegetarian. L-lysine is an essential amino acid that—although it is necessary for every protein in our bodies—our bodies don’t produce, so it must be ingested. Both protein and L-lysine are critical for proper growth. Chef Emma says, “Protein and lysine content are big concerns for parents faced with a vegetarian school lunch. . . I have developed 13 perfectly balanced meals, which are appealing to tiny taste buds.”
She used November and December to nail down her menu to be able to hit the ground running when school started back up this month. “I just kept honing, and honing, and honing it until the kids were getting a product they like,” she said. Having previously juggled a range of about 30 meals, she started thinking, why not pick 2 weeks’ worth of food and keep repeating those meals? She wants TNCS students to really embrace the Garden Tuck Shop program in all its facets, from enjoying the food to understanding its importance for their health. By using a regularly rotating system of meals, she would limit the unfamiliarity aspect that turns some kids off to a new food. “They might respond better to something that’s a bit more consistent,” she says. “Simplicity is better; you can put as much protein into a meal as you want, if they don’t eat it, it doesn’t really matter how protein-packed it is.”
During this 2-month transition phase, Chef Emma also made “personal appearances” in the classrooms to talk to the kids about their lunches. “Once I went round to the classroom to discuss color, texture, and taste and well as vitamins and nutrients and what they do for your body, even kids who hadn’t previously been eating very much had at least tried everything on the plate, and overall the results were really quite amazing.” To support the educational component, she posted MyPlate information around the cafeteria. “I want the kids to be able to tell me where the dairy is coming from on the plate, where the grains are,” she says. MyPlate is a visual reminder to kids to balance their meal with healthful choices and is endorsed by First Lady and healthy school lunch advocate Michelle Obama.
Also during the transition phase, Chef Emma received a lot of parent questions about some of the newly appearing menu items, particularly with desserts. She said she suddenly realized that what she does in the kitchen hasn’t always been quite clear to parents. “I cook from scratch every single day. The ‘cookie’ is homemade; the sandwich is homemade with homemade bread.” Concerns arose that kids participating in the program would come to expect dessert every day or, worse, eat only the dessert item. Says Chef Emma, “If the kids were going to eat anything, it was going to be dessert, so if I could hide vegetables and seeds in those baked goods, the kids are still getting proper nutrition. However, I just want to reassure everybody that during the transition, when we were trying to see how far we could go with certain salads, breads, and other baked items, that whenever you saw a cookie, a cupcake, or a slice of cake, it was enriched with hemp, chia, flax, sunflower seeds, or poppy seeds, because I know that there were concerns about having desserts on the menu.”
She has arrived at a happy medium, she reports. Program participants get their main dish (e.g., pizza, faux chicken nuggets, tomato soup with cheesy toasts, etc.), which is consistently accompanied by sides such as tabouleh, cous cous, warm bean salad, or Waldorf salad as well as the CSA supplementary vegetables and plenty of fresh fruit. “The homemade muffin or granola bar is there only to get more dried fruit and seeds into the kids—not as a treat per se,” says Chef Emma.
Another change is that she now serves lunch in a basket to avoid using so many disposables. “Also, clean-up isn’t so bad and lunch is a bit more fun.” It’s certainly appetizing! Another advantage is that the basket helps kids know what to expect, which is, again, part of Chef’s overall strategy. “When confronted with something they don’t all know, if we repeat it every 2 weeks the year round,” she says, “eventually they’ll grow to like it.”
The repetition is ideal for young kids, but it also presents challenges to the menu creator. “If the foods aren’t locally available because of seasonal changes, I’m going to have to supplement with conventional foods. But I also add in whatever local ingredients are available to balance.” That rolls into her greenhouse curriculum as well. “I want to get more students gardening and cooking.” So, they harvest what’s available and pickle and preserve what they can for these “leaner” months in addition to keeping season-appropriate vegetables and herbs growing all year to supplement the Garden Tuck Shop program. “The plants in the greenhouse are indigenous and perennial, allowing the children to witness the changing of the seasons and to become familiar with the plants they can grow in their temperature zone. We have a fig tree, an olive tree, three grape vines, an asparagus patch, a strawberry patch, a rhubarb patch, blackberry and raspberry brambles, and two blueberry bushes!” They also seasonally plant root veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes, and lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers in spring. Herbs include rosemary, mint, lavender, marjoram, oregano, sage, thyme, and bay laurel leaf. (Parents are welcome to the fresh herbs!)
Her next step was to calculate the exact nutrient content (proteins, carbs, lysine, etc. down to the smallest mineral) of each meal, based on portion size. “I want kids to understand that food is fuel and that’s why nature gives us the food that it does at the time of the year that it does. It’s so we can remain balanced and feel good.”
“Cleanest Kids’ Lunch Downtown!”
In early January, she held a seminar for teachers to educate them about each plate, and at a coming TNCS Information Night or Potluck she will also present to parents. “The last couple of years with this program have taught me that it’s all down to communication,” she said. “Success is really about communication, and I don’t want that to fall to the wayside going forward.” We’ll also be learning about how the greenhouse factors in. Classes have been drying herbs and flowers to make potpourris, flavored oils, and bouquets garni, and body scrubs and other products may also soon be available.
About program participants Chef Emma says, “They’ve been superstars putting up with all of this experimentation, and I think we’ve really gotten to a marketable product.” Typical lunches are faux (soy) nuggets, edamame and corn, organic Greek yogurt, fruit, and milk; spinach and cheese tortellini or ravioli, leafy salad, apricot and banana muffin, fruit, and milk; or bagel with soy nut butter and jelly, celery, raisins, organic Greek yogurt, and milk. See much of the rotating roster of 13 complete lunches, each with a minimum of 24 g protein and 1,925 mg lysine, below. Click Menu: January 2014 to download.
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Composting and collecting rainwater are next on the horizon, possibly this spring!