Culinary Students Bake Rolls to Overcome Shortage

Supply chain shortages have been impacting schools across the country. According to a recent survey by the School Nutrition Association, 97% of school meal program directors nationwide were concerned about continued pandemic supply chain disruptions and 90% were worried about staff shortages.  

In Virginia, instead of looking at the supply chain shortages as a negative, the Louisa County School District turned it into a positive and a lesson.  At Louisa County High School, located about two and half hours southwest of Washington, D.C., the food services program was only able to get white bread through their vendors and could not get any rolls.

“We asked the students what they thought about hamburgers and chicken sandwiches on the white bread, they were not happy about that choice,” said Randy Herman, Director of School Nutrition. That’s when Herman went to Chef Ben Howell of the school’s Culinary Arts Program and asked if his students would be interested in helping solve this problem.  Louisa County Public Schools found it was easier to find the raw ingredients for the rolls than the actual rolls. 

“Without hesitation the students said they wanted to help,” said Chef Ben Howell, Culinary Arts Teacher. “They took pride in their work, they really stepped up and they did better every day.”

“Chef Howell broke students down into groups, one group prepared the ingredients for the next day, a second group made the dough for the next day and the third group rolled the dough for that day’s lunch,” said Herman.

In September, the students took a recipe provided by the USDA and worked to perfect their skills in making the recipe. They then worked on getting the process done in the 80 minutes allotted for the class.  

For two weeks, the students baked rolls and ended up making 300 a day, for a total of 1,500 a week!

“The kids in my grade were really excited that we were making the rolls,  they were happy they got a bun for their burgers,” said Eleanor Osborne, 11th grade student at Louisa County High School.

After the students filled the gap, the district was finally able to find a new distributor for rolls. However, the real-life experience hasn’t ended with the roll making in September.

Similar to many other school nutrition programs across the country, staffing shortages have been a challenge in the kitchen. Some of the students in the culinary class have started volunteering in the cafeteria. Each day Chef Howell reaches out to Jessica Osborne, the cafeteria manager at the high school to see what she needs help with.  He’s happy to report that he had the opportunity to send 5 students a day to help out in the cafeteria to free up the lunch ladies. 

The feedback has been incredible from the staff and students, so much so that the school has also started an internship program. The high school students go to their classes for half the day and then work in the cafeteria for the other half. 

“I am so proud and grateful to see how they are bringing learning to life, our students are walking away not only smarter but better,” said Doug Straley, Superintendent of Louisa County Public Schools. “This has really brought together the 5 C’s: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and citizenship.”

Their efforts have caught on in the community as well.  When a local business discovered it wasn’t going to be able to order pies for Thanksgiving, without hesitation, Chef Howell knew his students were up for another challenge.

They are now baking several varieties of pies for delivery to the Willow Oaks Country Club in Richmond, Virginia.  They successfully baked one hundred pies for delivery right before Thanksgiving!

The culinary arts program also supports the Coffee Bar program at the Louisa County High School and Middle School. The culinary students make baked goods for the students of the special education program to deliver with coffee to the staff at each school.

The past two school years have brought many challenges, but also shown the amazing resiliency of school nutrition programs, students and school communities to come together.

“We all have good and bad days, my rough days get better thinking about the pride my students have in the projects we work on,” said Chef Howell. The Culinary Arts program is part of the district’s Career and technical education  (CTE) program. While not a large percentage of the students go into food service after taking the class, Chef Howell knows at some point everyone in his class will be out in the workforce and he’s trying to help them focus on the skills regardless of their career path.

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