By James Neal, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
School food service workers, dietitians and marketing professionals from across the nation gathered at AdvancePierre Foods Thursday with one objective: to make school food both healthier and tastier.
AdvancePierre called in consulting school district food service managers from across the country to compare notes with the company’s dietitian, production and marketing teams at its annual School Nutrition Advisory Council meeting.
Katie Kovar-Strack, food service school dietitian for AdvancePierre Foods, said the council meeting allows the company to market the best and most nutritious food possible to schools across the country.
“It gives us an opportunity to collaborate with the people who are out there in the field every day working to feed our kids,” she said. “Working with them helps us learn the trends in the schools so we can turn around and offer them the best products possible.”
Kovar-Strack said the council is motivated, in part, by the growing childhood obesity epidemic in America. Nearly one-third of American children are considered obese.
“Childhood obesity has been a growing concern and we need to do more as professionals to come together and find ways to make our products more nutritious for our customers,” she said. “We have to be able to do things at the manufacturing level to make foods more appealing and more nutritious.”
Chef Jimmy Gherardi, one of the council’s school food service consultants, said the balance between nutritious and tasty is key to getting better food in front of our nation’s students.
“We can give our kids everything healthy we want, but if it doesn’t taste good, they’re not going to eat it and it’s not going to do anybody any good,” Gherardi said.
Gherardi is part of a growing movement of chefs working with schools to improve the quality and nutrition of school meals.
He describes himself as a “classically trained chef turned ‘lunch lady.’”
Gherardi worked in the restaurant business for more than 25 years, earning numerous awards and the title Certified World Master Chef.
He also consulted with Nestle Inc., the Cleveland Clinic, Disney’s Food and Wine Festival, and was the media and research chef for Proctor & Gamble.
Gherardi ended up working in the school food business in an unexpected fashion.
“I had just gotten out of the restaurant business, and I had an office at my daughter’s restaurant,” Gherardi said. “She sold her restaurant a while later, and the school offered me a position and an office there.”
He took the position with the school, Seven Hills School in Cincinnati, developing recipes and cooking for more than 1,100 students.
Gherardi soon found many of his restaurant techniques did not translate well into a school cafeteria kitchen.
“The fact is, schools can’t cook from scratch,” Gherardi said. “I tried everything I could to cook from scratch, and it just doesn’t work because of the number of kids you have to feed.
“When you’re cooking for that many kids, you have to cook things they’re going to want to eat,” Gherardi said. “And, what do kids like to eat? They like to eat hamburgers, salisbury steak, chicken nuggets ... we know they like to eat those foods, we just needed to make them healthier.”
That desire to cook food that would be both appealing and healthy for kids brought Gherardi to work on the advisory council.
He also works with the American Culinary Foundation’s Chef and Child Foundation, which works to pair chefs with school districts to improve kids’ food and eating habits.
“Right now, chefs are teaming up with schools and food service providers across the country to improve the quality of food in our schools,” Gherardi said.
He said controlling the content of sodium, fat and potential food allergens becomes complicated when you have to prepare meals, on a budget, for thousands of students.
“We have a lot of issues when we’re feeding a large number of kids that we might not have preparing meals at home,” Gherardi said. “We have to be able to control all of those things, and still put out a good product to a large number of kids.”
He said the work of the advisory council is a win-win for schools and AdvancePierre.
“AdvancePierre is helping us do a better job, and we’re helping them to do a better job,” he said.
Information on childhood nutrition, recipes and cooking tips are available through the American Culinary Foundation’s Chef and Child Foundation at http://www.acfchefs.org.