NEWTON GROVE — Inside Hobbton High School’s kitchen, the aroma of several dishes in the oven tickled many noses. Maudie Parsons enjoyed adding to the mix of pleasant smells by making cheese and bean burritos.
“I’ve drove almost two hours to get here and every morning. It’s been worth the travel,” she said as pots clanked around her and cooks talked rapidly about putting the final touches on meals.
Parsons, a cafeteria manger from Scotland County Schools, was one of many nutrition managers from nearby districts who came to Sampson County to participate in the North Carolina K-12 Culinary Institute. Its purpose is to improve nutritional offerings and came about through a U.S. Department of Agriculture Professional Standards Training Grant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (NCDPI).
“This is a great experience for me to know different types of entrees that can be made for students along with different types of salads,” Parsons said.
Along with others, she’s looking forward to spreading the knowledge of new recipes. The result was dishes such as sweet Thai chicken, cheesy Italian spinach and berried green beans.
“I believe that if we do taste tests quite often with different recipes that we have learned, the students will become more familiar with it and they’ll eat it well, even though they are afraid of trying new things,” Parsons said.
Professionals from Sampson County Schools, Clinton City Schools, Falcon Children’s Home, Cumberland County, Harnett County and Scotland County participated in the regional three-day event. April Jordan, director of School Nutrition for Sampson County Schools, said the institute is a unique opportunity for professionals to improve skills necessary to provide quality and nutritious meals. She was also pleased to have a regional location, which was beneficial to the specialists.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the ladies to learn new skills that they otherwise wouldn’t have time to learn,” Jordan said. “It’s done in a non-threatening environment. Instead of just sitting and watching demos, they’re practicing what they are actually learning.”
During the institute, Neal Miller of Falcon Children’s Home learned new ways to cut and chop food.
“There’s some things that I’m learning and there’s some techniques that I’ll have to change,” Miller said. “I’m learning to use my knife a little different.”
Some of the other lessons included measuring, preparing foods for just-in-time service, scheduling and using equipment effectively. Chef Kelly Waldron traveled from Texas to lead instruction.
“It’s fantastic and the best job in the world,” Waldron said. “I’m a chef by trade, so I love working with food and being around food. But also being able to work with them and teach is the best job in the world.”
Waldron was joined by Chef Carlin Breinig, who traveled from the Atlanta area to assist and train.
“I do a lot of work with kids and I teach a lot of cooking classes,” Breinig said. “They have to eat and they should like the food that they eat.”
She stressed the importance of having a tasty, but nutritious meal.
“With the requirement to have less sodium and less fat, you still want to have flavor,” Breinig said. “For part of the project, we’ve developed recipes for different spice blends. They’re salt free, but they have flavor.
“A lot of times this is the only meal some of the kids will get, so you want it to be good,” Breinig said. “I love this.”
One of the big hits with kids is Sriracha-flavored meals.
“The older and middle school kids like the spice,” Breinig said.
Some of the spices used during the institute included Southwest, Creole, Italian and Mexican.
“Who wants to eat boring food?” Breinig remarked.
Institute graduates become chef ambassadors ready to teach others at the school level. Waldron said it’s a way to “teach it forward.”
“What they’re doing has such an impact on the health of our students,” she said. “They’re the ones able to provide the healthy meals and serve them in such a way that makes the kids want to eat them.”
Along with a chef hat and apron to celebrate their accomplishment, participants also took back equipment such as a Sunkist Sectionizer, cutting board, trays and knife sharpeners. The items will be used to aid in cooking meals.
The face-to-face and virtual institute was created by NCDPI, School Nutrition Section and Chef Cyndie Story’s K-12 Culinary Teams. It’s five objectives are to improve student health, well-being and academic through nutritious, appealing meals at school; increase participation in high quality, enticing school nutrition program; expand capacity of local nutrition programs to purchase, prepare and serve fresh, locally grown produce; increase consumption of fruits, vegetables and whole grain-rich foods; and provide continuing education opportunities for school personnel.
Tracey Bates, a school nutrition specialist from NCDPI, said the regional workshop is one of 16 being held during the summer. Officials try to find locations that can accommodate workshops.
“I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for this group of professionals to come away with recipes and resources that they can take back to their local schools and teach that concept forward,” Bates said.
Reach Chase Jordan at 910-249-4617. Follow us on Twitter at @SampsonInd and like us on Facebook.