Sunday, October 27, 2013

Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro helps bring local, whole food focus to school lunch - By Elizabeth Richards

School lunch is changing and RSU 14 is ready. With Samantha Cowens-Gasbarro, chef and school nutrition and wellness coordinator, on the job, students and staff alike will see exciting new initiatives in the district’s nutrition program. 
Cowens-Gasbarro has a degree in culinary arts and nutrition from Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island. She worked for several years in the Boston area as a personal chef, as well as helping to run a cooking school, teaching classes, working on menu development and more. Cowens-Gasbarro said this job seemed like a perfect fit between what Jeanne Reilly, RSU 14’s director of school nutrition, was looking for and what Cowens-Gasbarro had been doing in menu development, nutrition work and her work with kids.

Cowens-Gasbarro attended a “Chefs Move to Schools” training in Mississipi before jumping into her position. This program is a part of first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative to fight childhood obesity. Chefs Move to Schools teaches chefs about the new federal school nutrition guidelines, and how they can work with partner schools. While Cowens-Gasbarro said there are not many school districts who have hired chefs at this point, she believes the concept will catch on. In the meantime, there are chefs who are visiting classrooms and doing guest chef appearances at schools. The program is great for bringing an awareness of what is involved in school nutrition, said Cowens-Gasbarro. 

School nutrition is a whole different level of food preparation that many chefs are not familiar with, she said. “You’re working with such strict limitations and yet you still have to feed them enough calories. It’s really a whole different world. This whole training was a crash course introduction to school nutrition and the obstacles they face, the deadlines, the time limits,” said Cowens-Gasbarro.

Her job has many moving parts, she said, including working with kitchen staff, helping to redesign the kitchens and move towards more from scratch cooking, organizing farm to school days and other special lunches for all the schools in the district, working directly with students to teach cooking and nutrition, organizing the gardens at all the schools and the backpack program. “That keeps it interesting every day. No day is the same, and that’s what I like. That’s the best part,” she said.

Cowens-Gasbarro said Reilly has made the transition really easy. She was also pleasantly surprised by the dedication of the food service staff. “They really care what the kids think, and they care when they don’t like it. They care about what they’re doing, and they care about doing it to the best of their ability. I thought that was awesome that they were so into it,” she said. “Their dedication is just unbelievable.”

Training the kitchen staff and giving them the confidence that they can make things from scratch is one part of her job. “These women do amazing things. They are on a tight, tight, tight - I can’t say it enough- tight timeline in terms of getting food out for hundreds of kids. It’s really amazing and they do such a wonderful job. To say to them we’re going to do this from scratch, of course that’s frightening, it’s frightening for me,” said Cowens-Gasbarro. 

And yet, about a month ago, the kitchen team at the high school made fresh pasta lasagna, and it was a big hit. “That’s kind of a nice team building activity for the kitchens, even though it’s kind of scary when you go into it. It is nice to know on the other side that we did it and we survived. We got the food out and it was great. The kids liked it. Doing little things like that instills confidence,” said Cowens-Gasbarro.

She hasn’t faced too many challenges yet, but because she was new to school nutrition, she had a lot to learn, said Cowens-Gasbarro. She didn’t know anything about the requirements of school nutrition and reimbursements when she began. And, she added, because the standards shift and change, that kind of learning will be a constant. 

Figuring out ways to work with the students to get them involved and help them make them feel a part of the process is what Cowens-Gasbarro said she is most excited about. “You don’t want them to feel like it’s something that’s happening to them that they have to deal with. You want them to be a part of it, and I think that’s really how you’re going to reach the kids and start to tweak the system,” she said. While she doesn’t yet know the best way to do this, she said, “I’m ready to try all ways to get there, and I really do think it’s through the kids getting their hands dirty.”

In addition to events like farm to school days at the high school and middle school, Cowens-Gasbarro will be planning things for the elementary schools, such as an “animal day” in Raymond, where they are making frog shaped sandwiches, and trying to tie lunch in with the curriculum in fun ways. “We want to get kids more into the lunch, and that’s kind of the way to their heart at that age, is to make food fun,” she said.

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