SNA President Hosts Renowned Chef with Great Success

2016-02-24

No one knows the value of a healthy school meal to America’s children better than the 56,000 members of the School Nutrition Association. And there is no group that has a better understanding of the challenges associated with serving that meal—and enticing students to embrace nutritious ingredients. But in the face of the ongoing obesity epidemic in this country, and the serious health consequences that result, many food and health experts from outside our profession are inspired to lend their own passion and expertise to the cause.

Over the years, SNA members have felt burned by some of these well-intentioned efforts—especially when a genuine spirit of cooperation has been lacking. Thus, when The Washington Post published an article in December 2015 announcing renowned fine-dining chef Daniel Giusti’s plans to (according to the paper’s headline) “fix” school lunches, Association members should be forgiven, if some bristled with wary concern. Fortunately, SNA President Jean Ronnei, SNS, had a more optimistic reaction and saw in this news the opportunity for creative collaboration.

Chef Daniel Giusti (left) enjoyed a great visit to the Twin Cities area, with hosts
Jean Ronnei (St. Paul) and Bernard Weber (Minneapolis).

Ronnei reached out to Chef Giusti and invited him to visit her St. Paul, Minn., school district, as well as several others in the Twin Cities area. Giusti, whose new company has the goal to build or improve school kitchens and hire professional chefs to work full-time in schools, met Ronnei’s enthusiasm with equal regard, and he accepted her invitation.

“When I read the [Post] article, I thought, here’s someone who has good intentions, who’s interested in an incredibly important issue, which is our children’s health,” Ronnei says. “In my role as SNA president, I told him I had two objectives,” she shares. “One was to help him with understanding school meal programs; a second goal was for him to gain an appreciation of the challenges and complexities that school nutrition professionals face—there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.”

In addition to Stacy Koppen, St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) Nutrition Services director, Ronnei also invited Mary Anderson, Culinary Express supervisor, Wayzata Public Schools; Bertrand Weber, Culinary and Nutrition Services director, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS); Julie Powers, Nutrition Services & Purchasing supervisor, Stillwater Public Schools; Deb Lukkonen, School Nutrition Programs supervisor, Minnesota Department of Education, FNS; and Melissa Anderson, School Food Service director, Holdingford Schools in central Minnesota, to open their doors and/or participate in a Directors Roundtable.

The two-day visit started with a tour of the SPPS Nutrition Center, followed by the sampling of SPPS’ school breakfast options, a review of the financial tools used to manage the nutrition programs and lunch at a local high school. In the afternoon, the entire group got together for the Roundtable discussion. “The members of their teams were so gracious in sharing any information that they thought could be helpful in any way to my future venture,” Giusti reports. He was inquisitive, Ronnei adds, asking all the right questions about running a business on such tight margins.

A third stop on the whirlwind Minnesota tour was Wayzata High School,
hosted by Mary Anderson (center).

The day ended with a second Roundtable—this one with several area chefs already working with Weber’s Minneapolis Culinary & Nutrition Services department. The True Food Chef Council is a partnership between the district and the city’s restaurant/culinary community to help promote and endorse school meal changes already underway. Chef partners have helped to create recipes, promote fundraisers in their restaurants and help teach kids in school cafeterias and at special events.

Day two began with a tour of the MPS Culinary Center, along with observations of kitchens and meal services at select schools. The group finished with a trip to Wayzata High School to see school lunch in action at a third district. “I really was extremely excited to see the quality,” Giusti declares. “There are, of course, many challenges to producing high quality, nutritious and tasty school meals and you quite often hear people saying it is not possible. [But] after visiting the schools in Minnesota, I know it is very possible.”

This incredibly successful visit just goes to show what a difference can be made in people’s opinions if you simply reach out. Invite restauranteurs, community members, vocal opponents, media, legislators and potential partners to visit your school cafeterias and learn more about the elements of a successful school meal program. Sure, your invitation might be respectfully declined, but the first step is to offer the opportunity. If you want a little help on how to successfully host a noted guest, visit Cafeteria Visits 101.

When you fear that someone has a view of your program that might not be positive, “Reach out and educate,” Ronnei advises. “It’s a great opportunity to partner and learn from one another!”

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