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It's Not Just Mystery Meat Anymore: Innovations in the School Caf

Cafeteria food changes with the times, and Northborough is an innovative leader.

If the idea of school cafeteria lunches conjures images of mystery meat and soggy green beans, well, you haven’t been to a cafeteria in Northborough or Southborough lately.

There, you’re more likely to be able to fill your tray with something you might buy at a café, a hummus wrap, a fresh salad, whole wheat pasta, or sesame noodles with tofu.

It’s all part of change that’s a coordination between kitchen managers, experienced staff and someone new to the Northborough-Southborough School District and in a new position: Maura Feeley, director of food service.

Feeley came to the district from a college atmosphere in Vermont, where folks were surrounded by good sources of fresh organics, and wanted to see them on their plates. They also wanted variety, and an international flavor.

Coming to an elementary, middle and high school position is definitely a different atmosphere, but one thing isn’t that much different in one respect— kids, like adults, want food that’s interesting.

And in four months, Feeley thinks they may have added some interest.

“We have incorporated vegetarian entrees along the way. We’re making our own hummus, we’re making our own hummus wraps,” she said.

There are also fresh salads available.

She’s also begun to infiltrate the food line with some things that will be regular fare in the fall, such as whole wheat pasta and whole grain crust on pizza, sometimes a hard sell to students brought up on a different taste.

At , seniors choose their favorite food for the senior luncheon at the end of the year. The choice of the class of 2012: chicken nuggets.

Indeed, as Algonquin Kitchen Manager Dianne Cofer pointed out, “They’d have chicken nuggets at every meal if they could.”

There’s a way, staff believes, to make the food inviting, interesting and healthy, and get students to change what may be unhealthy eating habits, as the cafeterias are changing their offerings.

“We’re trying to get them to change with us,” Cofer said.

Food service efforts haven’t just been aimed at what’s on student’s plates, but where it comes from, and where it goes. They’ll be using fresh herbs grown in the greenhouse at Algonquin Regional High School by Susan Halpin’s family and consumer science class; students will be composting scraps at the

In many of the district’s schools, Feeley has also changed how students get their food.

“By February we had restructured the food lines and added a grab and go section [at Algonquin],” she said. “It gives them that self-service feel, and making it a quicker process for them. They have about 22 minutes, getting from where they are to the cafeteria. It’s a very limited time.”

Taking on the challenge of the Northborough-Southborough District could have been daunting; there are ten schools in the district, including one regional high school, two middle schools, and seven elementary schools. And 5,000 students, in different stages of growth and development and with different tastes.

While Feeley lauds the experienced staff that has participated in many a food summit to brainstorm and inaugurate the changes, she hasn’t forgotten to involve the most important people in the equation: the consumers themselves.

Feeley met with students, had lunch with them, and asked them their preferences.

“Would you believe, they asked me for sushi?” she said.

She’s also invited groups for tastings of new foods before introducing them in the cafeteria line.

By all accounts, students are liking the new offerings.

Algonquin Senior Victoria Shipp says she’s pleased to see entrees they’ve never seen before in the line.

Senior Sean Burns likes the presentation.

“I usually get the deli, and I really like the grab-and-go,” Burns said.

Feeley isn’t only accountable to the kids who’ve now given her their preferences and the folks who hired her, she’s accountable to the federal government: there are federal mandates on what’s served to the nation’s students, especially when it’s sometimes purchased partially with funds that are federally reimbursable, or made with government food.

This September, that’s going to mean a big change: federal mandates will lower fat and sodium and up the proportion of whole grains.

That means students in the district will be getting used to whole wheat crust in their pizza as well as whole wheat pasta.

They’ll also be getting used to bidding farewell to anything that has caffeine, something that Feeley says will also affect vendors at the school.

Getting the students involved in sharing their preferences, sometimes picking their own food from the cafeteria line, even growing the herbs and studying the compost is likely to engender a new way for students to look at food and, it is hoped, a new way of making choices and knowing they’re important. Feeley, like the government, has a goal.

“It’s the same as what all these mandates coming down are designed for; to create a new, healthier generation,” she said.

Kimberly Reed April 30, 2012 at 07:11 PM
This is fantastic. I was just watching Jamie Oliver on TEDtalks on this very issue. I am very happy to learn that our town is on the right page with this. Way to go Maura
Karen Ares April 30, 2012 at 09:54 PM
Absolutely super!!
ET May 01, 2012 at 12:32 AM
Finally!! So glad to hear this news. Glad you are here Maura Feeley, keep up the good work.
Carol C May 01, 2012 at 04:11 AM
Keep it coming. Love it!
Carol C May 01, 2012 at 04:13 AM
Love Jamie Oliver

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