VA Team Engages Students Outside the Cafeteria

The school nutrition team in Harrisonburg City Public Schools (VA) prepares more than just healthy school meals during the school day. Team members engage with their students through community initiatives, enrichment programs, after-school meal service as well as weekend programs. According to the nutrition director, members of the team love extra opportunities to work with the students, even if it means volunteering after school hours.

Harrisonburg’s nutrition team supports an Emerging Chefs program for young members of the community involved in the On the Road Collaborative. The non-profit organization based in Harrisonburg works with underserved youth and shows them different career paths.

Salad bar with hummus and a homemade roll

“I work with the Emerging Chefs program and speak to the students about school nutrition as a career path and the differences between cooking in a kitchen at home and a commercial kitchen,” said Andrea Early, Director of School Nutrition for Harrisonburg City Public Schools. “We talk about meal patterns and creating culturally inclusive meals.”

This semester, students in the Emerging Chefs program have a contest to come up with a menu to be served for school lunch. They have to follow nutrition guidelines for the meal and stay within the budget for the ingredients.

Early works with them to think about how the meal can be incorporated within a week’s worth of menus. For instance, when a group made a ramen dish with eggs marinated in soy sauce, she explained that a meal higher in sodium like that would have to be balanced on a weekly with meals that are lower in sodium.

She also explained to students how recipes need to be scaled to feed 200 people, helping them to think through logistics. Would they have to buy pre-cooked eggs? How would they cook the noodles? Was there enough staff to make the meal?

Chickpea Tikka Masala

Once the winning recipe is decided, students will come up with a plan to market the menu to peers and assess ways to get classmates excited to try the new dish.

Earth Club is another enrichment program offered that the school nutrition team has been involved with. The after-school club does a variety of activities focused on environmental awareness, including trying to develop vegetarian meals. Last year, they came up with a recipe for Chickpea Tikka Masala. Early worked with the students on recipe how-to’s as well as variations from mild to spicy and reviewing proteins that can be added to the traditional Indian dish.

Harrisonburg City Schools is currently offering a Science Saturday enrichment program. The weekend program falls within the USDA’s Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), so the nutrition department is able to provide breakfast and a snack to participating students.

All students at Harrisonburg High School who participate in an after-school program are also eligible for a dinner served at dismissal time through CACFP.

Tomato, and cucumber salad served with falafel on International Day

“Our high school was the first site in the district to serve the extra meal. It helps reduce waste because not only do we offer grab-and-go options, we offer additional hot lunch choices,” said Early.

She and the team see that students enjoy the extra servings of their favorite meals. The grab-and-go meals each have dairy, grain, protein, fruit and vegetable components. The students get the extra meal after the school bell rings and before their enrichment program begins.

The district also offers fresh fruits and vegetables to elementary students free of charge through the USDA’s Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

Harrisonburg is a very diverse community with more than 50 languages commonly spoken in the community. Early likes to serve meals that represent the student body, once a month offering an international day in the cafeteria to reflect the school’s diverse demographics. Some of the meals served include falafel with pita and a cucumber salad, chicken fettuccine Alfredo and homemade enchiladas.

As the school year winds down, the nutrition department is gearing up for its summer meal program, which includes two mobile meal routes.  The nutrition team is also looking forward to a new kitchen coming in 2024 when Harrisonburg’s new high school opens.

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