More Meal Kit Mastery in Mansfield

In its October 2020 issue, School Nutrition spotlighted district school meal programs that were turning the lemons of curbside meal service into the most delicious lemonade by finding inventive ways to transform takeout meals. Although the print edition did not have space to share the forward thinking of the team at Mansfield Independent School District, we report on their efforts below.

Spotlight: Mansfield Independent School District, Texas
Website: Mansfield ISD Nutrition Services website
Social: @misdnutrition (Twitter), “Good Food Real Food” (Facebook) @thecrossingcafe_MISD (Instagram), MISD Nutrition

If emergency feeding in March 2020 was “Phase 1,” Mansfield ISD Culinary Trainer Isabella Cannon estimates that school meal service in September is “Phase 87.” That’s how much, and how often, things have changed since COVID-19 closed her district’s 43 campuses.

Early pandemic meal service consisted of cold, pre-packed meals that could be picked up curbside and heated at home. But then Connor’s off-hand joke to Menu Planner Seon Irvin—“Why don’t we give them a basket like on ‘Chopped’?”—took root as an idea, and slowly turned into “The Market Basket” over the course of the next few weeks.

“We presented [the idea] to Director Rita Denton, who liked it but wasn’t sure how we would make it work within regulations,” recounts Connor. “We were proposing things like giving families a whole pint of strawberries, rather than individual servings.” Using a kind of reverse-engineered ‘Chopped’ method, they started by sitting down and physically putting a bundle together based on the current menu. “We put all the items in the bag and we took a picture of the bag. Then we broke [the contents] out by the menu: Here’s Monday’s breakfast, here’s Monday’s lunch. That convinced [Denton] who said, “We can do this. We can make this work.”

One Idea. Many Solutions.

Moving to the meal-kit style “Market Basket” would solve more than a few problems for the Mansfield ISD Student Nutrition staff, beginning with their ability to maintain proper social distancing. “We wanted to maintain a separation of employees, with as few employees in one setting as possible,” says Connor. Meal bundles would allow the nutrition staff to reduce exposure and be onsite on prep-only and service-only days, working in shifts to remain in limited cohorts.

“The second driver was that while we had die-hard parents coming daily to pick up meals, others weren’t able to do that. We thought if we did meal bundles twice per week, even if a parent couldn’t make it both days they could hopefully get half of the meals.”

Another factor was the space requirements of meal kit ingredients in available cooler space. Plus, transitioning from the cold heat-and-serve meals to the Market Basket model would allow students to enjoy more of their school meal favorites, like “Tacodillas” and nachos.

“All of our decisions started with commodities,” says Connor. “Not knowing if the program would be profitable over the summer, and knowing we absolutely needed to feed the kids, we sat down and assessed what commodities we had on hand. We started with proteins because that’s the majority of [the USDA Foods we receive], then we looked at our kids’ favorites, and then we added a few interesting or additional side items. Our Nacho Day is super popular, so we asked ourselves how we could use our fajita chicken there. We had tons of char-broiled hamburger patties, so how could we use those?”

Every step of the box-building process was tested to ensure food quality and integrity, from adding their custom taco seasoning to commodity chicken fajita meat (“We got it all over everything else in the box!”) to a Tetris-like stacking of ingredients in their separate components—cooler bag, dry bag, freezer box. Instead of single-serve cartons of milk, the district eventually moved to sending home half-gallons. “It ended up costing less, but it required a waiver to do 2% milk because of availability issues,” notes Connor.

The last step in building the box was devised through trial-and-error with an eye on maintaining quality. “Bread goes in the dry bag, but as soon as we add the freezer box, it’s smushed. So we explored putting it in the freezer box. There, it takes up space, but it also keeps other items from moving around…,” cites Connor as an example. Meanwhile, a series of stackable, wheeled storage bins were employed to helped nutrition staff organize and bundle foods; each bin was labeled with a component category (frozen, dry, cooler) to ensure every kit received each component.

Marketing The Basket

To connect kids and families to the new meal service concept, Connor dusted off her iPhone video-making skills and began producing videos for her department’s YouTube channel. She had long experience producing Nutrition Services videos to promote such initiatives as the team’s “Try Something New!” program for elementary schools.

For the market basket approach, Connor took inspiration from the popular “Tasty” videos online, shooting “Meal Inspirations” instructional videos to help families and students use ingredients from their Market Basket to create delicious meals. These have included “Watermelon, Turkey & Cheese Flatbread + Smoothies” and “Build Your Own Tacodilla.” Each video features a “Chef Isabella” brand logo. She edits the steps together and applies a voiceover.

“I think they are significantly better than they used to be,” says Connor. “I do a take start to finish, and if that doesn’t come out I do it again, start to finish, then use Adobe Premier—which my district pays for—to trim and cut, and do fast-forwarding to keep them short. For music, I use Audio Network, which has open-source music; if the dish has a theme, I try to find music to match that theme. I look for selections that are upbeat and won’t overpower my voice.”

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