SNOW HILL — After spending more than a month working with local elementary school cafeterias as part of a Team Nutrition Grant program, Chef Paul Suplee called the effort to improve school nutrition a success. He did admit, however, that it was a small step but expressed hope that it would lead to similar efforts in the future.
Suplee, culinary arts instructor for the Worcester County Technical High School, and his students teamed up with cafeteria workers at five local elementary schools to design sets of easy-to-make yet nutritious meals that could then become part of the school’s regular menu. Suplee and his students spent one week cooking and planning with each school. At the end of the five-week period, the schools will share all of the meal ideas that had been generated with their counterparts, resulting in a widely expanded cafeteria menu for all of Worcester County.
“We’re just trying to educate the kids,” said Suplee. “So far we’ve had good results.”
He stressed the fact that the perceived worry over lack of nutrition in schools isn’t as dramatic as many believe and praised the cafeteria employees his team worked with as having done an incredible job, especially since they are always working with limited resources.
In response to that scarcity of funds and resources, Suplee used a portion of the $30,000 Team Nutrition Grant to outfit some of the more underequipped kitchens with new chef’s knives and other small-ware.
“They need to have the tools to do their jobs,” said Suplee of the cafeteria workers.
Besides better equipping kitchens, the major goal of the program was to leave schools with creative, healthy, and most importantly, easily duplicated meal ideas.
According to Suplee, the grant came with several conditions, such as the obvious need for all food to meet USDA standards. A tougher condition was that all of the meals had to be designed so that even the least equipped school kitchen could prepare them.
“There were a lot of limitations,” said Suplee.
However, he said the grant was a good way of getting “a whole bunch of entities together” to work toward a common goal. Instead of attempting to overhaul the system, Suplee and his students tried to design meals that they knew would be healthy, popular with children and that wouldn’t require drastic alterations in ingredients or preparation beyond what the schools typically do already.
“A lot of the changes were simple ones,” he said.
A focus on fresh produce and using less processed goods was the backbone of the program. Suplee stated that students just taking fruit juice instead of fruit punch, or other similar swaps, could have a big impact in the long run. He added that it was a good idea to encourage healthy eating habits at such a young age and in an environment as conductive as a school cafeteria.
“We’re in a good position to get kids’ attention,” said Suplee.
While he is a proponent of early learning, Suplee also admitted that he would enjoy seeing the program extended into school cafeterias at other age levels, including middle and high school.
He called the overall effort to improve the health of children a “very, very hefty task,” but was optimistic about the direction Worcester County schools were headed.
Suplee also pointed out that there had been a dual benefit to partnering with schools to design meals — the education of his own culinary arts students.
“It helped them understand menu planning from an institutional standpoint,” said Suplee.