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Wanda Johnson of Cayuga ISD makes whole grain teriyaki noodles with vegetables during Meal Appeal University, a program for food service workers at public schools across East Texas led by professional chefs from To Taste held at Whitehouse High School on Wednesday. More than 150 participants from Region 7 schools learned about child nutrition, knife skills, whole grain cooking, plate and line presentation and behavioral economics.

Food service employees from school districts across East Texas came to Whitehouse High School this week to learn how to spice up their school kitchens.

Over the course of two days, the Meal Appeal University event drew 160 food service workers from 106 school districts served by the Region 7 Education Service Center, which works as a service hub for public schools in East Texas.

Elaine Revell, the nutrition coordinator for the Region 7 ESC, said the event came together thanks to a grant from the Texas Department of Agriculture. The grant goes to different regions each year to promote the training.

“We want to give them new ideas,” Revell said of the event. “We eat with our eyes, so we’re hoping to increase the appearance of meals.”

The program was broken down into classes, including knife skills, cooking with whole grains and meal presentation. Professional chefs at To Taste served as the instructors. As part of the training, attendees received two knives, an apron and a cutting board to take back to their school’s kitchen.

Tina Woods, from Marshall ISD, said she was learning a lot.

She said she learned that it is important to always have the cafeteria food line looking good, and to allow students to have as many fruits and vegetables as they want.

One takeaway that she plans to bring back to the 60-plus food service employees in her district is how to arrange the line in order to encourage students to make healthy choices. Doing so can be as simple as moving the milk to the front of the line and putting cookies and other less healthy items for a la carte purchase near the end, so the students are more likely to have a full tray once they reach the cashier.

Some of the more fun visual techniques included making smiley faces and other designs with the fruits and vegetables.

Vinnie Bass, from Quitman ISD, said it was a bit of a challenge switching from regular to whole grain pastas. She said she was being more careful with her measurements and paying more attention as they cooked, so the noodles didn’t become soggy.

Revell said the whole grain is healthier, and when sauce is added children likely won’t notice a difference.

Bass said she believes her students are going to enjoy seeing some of these new techniques in action.

“I think the kids will like any changes we make,” she said. “They just want to see a change from the previous school year. Our main purpose is taking care of the kids and making sure they learn how to eat well.”