The stereotype is familiar: Gruff, uninterested lunch ladies spooning unidentifiable goop onto plastic trays. That’s not Loudoun’s style.
This week, cheerful, excited cafeteria employees took a week out of their summer break to gather in a sunny room at Willowsford and learn to cook from scratch with produce straight from the farm under the tutelage of an experienced chef.
“The whole goal is to take back scratch cooking in Loudoun County,” said Willowsford culinary advisor Chef Bonnie Moore. “They all want to eliminate the additives. Loudoun feels that getting back to scratch is a great way to do that.”
Over the course of four days, a class of cafeteria employees learned to prepare a variety of dishes from fresh produce, ranging from salad dressing to hearty chili. Over the course of two weeks, 48 cafeteria employees learned some of Moore’s art.
“I think it’s a matter of pride,” said Loudoun County Public Schools supervisor of school nutrition services Becky Domokos-Bays. “It’s ‘wow, I can do this, and I am now better able to do a different kind of cooking than what I was used to doing.’”
The dishes were a hit. Several people asked about cooking them at home. And that’s a good sign, because it’s all about getting the students eating fresh food.
“You’ve got to be creative,” said Jenny Hein, executive director of Real Food for Kids, which organized and funded the training with a $30,000 grant from the Lifetime Foundation. “You can’t advocate for cleaner food and then watch the kids throw it in the trash.”
Real Food for Kids seeks to get healthier food into schools, and began its work in Fairfax County.
“Everyone was on board to make these changes,” Hein said. “They were able to remove 93 percent of all the artificial ingredients and additives in the food served in Fairfax County.”
Now that work has begun in Loudoun. Last year, Moore taught all 86 LCPS kitchen managers knife skills, and when signups for courses this summer opened up they were filled in a day. Nearly 50 cafeteria employees have now learned some cooking from Moore in the past two weeks.
“I think that food really connects us in a very special way, especially in this community,” Moore said. “I like to connect the kids to the farm, and where the food comes from.”
Moore teaches plenty of classes at Willowsford, mostly to kids. That same teaching and those same dishes, which have convinced so many children they love vegetables, carried over into the past two weeks of classes.
“We’re teaching the same thing to people that cook for kids as when we’re cooking with the kids themselves,” Moore said. “And I think that’s what’s very special. We are not going to change to healthier eating habits unless we work as a whole community.”
It’s all part of a much bigger farm-to-schools initiative in Loudoun, which has also sprouted 31 school gardens, along with visits from area farmers and even circulation of farmer trading cards.
Domokos-Bays has also started Taste It Thursdays and Fear Factor Fridays with help from Monroe Tech students to get students trying things they wouldn’t otherwise eat.
“I got an email one night at about 9 o’clock,” Domokos-Bays said. “This parent said, ‘I can’t believe I’m writing this email. My kid did Taste It Thursday and tried fresh spinach, and now he wants to go to the store and get fresh spinach. Knock me over with a spoon.’”
That has also resulted in a little confusion.
“We had a parent or two call us on the day we served tricolor cauliflower, and they said, ‘why are you painting the cauliflower?’” Domokos-Bays recalled. “We said, well, there’s lots of work to do.”