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School Lunches Get Nourished! An interview with CMS Culinary Manager, Jody Francisco

February 04, 2018 8 min read

School Lunches Get Nourished! An interview with CMS Culinary Manager, Jody Francisco

For the past few weeks, we've had some pretty exciting company at Nourish World Headquarters - the new Culinary Manager for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools has worked shifts in the kitchen with us, learning some of our bulk vegetable prep techniques. Turns out, he's been hired to make some long-needed change to the student school lunch program, and we couldn't be more excited to lend a hand (plus, he's pretty great at peeling carrots and potatoes). Read on for a conversation between Jody Francisco and Chef Julia about his plans for this year, and stay tuned for more news about Nourish and CMS!


Chef Julia: Tell us a little about who you are and what your mission is.


Jody Francisco: I’m the new Manager of Culinary Development and Community Partnerships for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. I’m here to improve the food being served at CMS in every way I can.


J: In what ways will you be changing how things currently work for the better?


JF: We’re running a trial program on 10 schools this year and next, and pulling them out of the menu system the other schools have been using these last years. We’ll be instituting an aquaponics system at Garinger, and feeding their cafeteria with the produce it grows. We’ll be partnering with local chefs like yourself, to bring professional chefs back into the school kitchens. We’ll be holding contests so that local culinary students can build recipes and compete for the right to serve those recipes at their schools, making them kind of celebrity chefs. Garinger will be a hub - when they get their aquaponics system and greenhouse, and the culinary program returns, that'll be the focal point for the culinary program and everything is going to tie into it. But it doesn't do us any good if the kids coming into Garinger don't have a background in that type of field or education to build off of, once they get access to this advanced system and curriculum, so everything we do at Garinger we're going to shrink down and use in elementary schools as well, and it'll all be food/agriculture/culinarily focused.


"We’re looking at everything that is a student's food experience, and how we can make it better."


And it isn’t just educating these students that needs to happen. We’re looking at everything that is a student's food experience, and how we can make it better. We have a warehouse full of silverware we would like to use again, but how do we get it back into the rotation, do we have enough labor and budget to do that. Everything is disposable right now, for the most part, because it's cheaper. And some of the fear around the things that we want to do is that things will cost a lot more money which would have a huge financial impact to the program. Just to give you an example, the winning paper plate bid was only .001 less expensive than the bids above it. But that one tiny percentage ended up saving CMS approximately $100,000. That's why we need to smart about making change - one thing impacts this whole system in such a big way, you can't change it all at once. You have to take steps, and run trials - so that’s what we’ll do at these 10 schools.


J: So you think offering real silverware to lunching students helps them to see real change, and helps to make them trust their school cafeteria more? I totally get that. Real silverware has a permanence and seriousness that plastic does not, we hear this from our farm-to-table and pop up dinner guests all the time.


JF: I do think so, and the student's perceptions are everything. This is why I want chefs at these schools regularly in white coats - the students will see a professionally dressed chef behind the lines and maybe notice their meal is better that day, and we'll start to change their perception and earn their trust back a bit. And so we have to set a standard. And hold our staff accountable to that standard, and our vendors as well.


J: What's your interest in getting vegetable/vegan dishes on CMS lunch plates coming from?


"We're a large system, and the need for healthy, vegetarian and vegan recipes is large as well."


JF: Just like in my last school system, CMS could do better in that area. We're a large system, and the need for healthy, vegetarian and vegan recipes is large as well. The kids respond well to good food when it's on the menu, and that inspires our staff to make those recipes more often. And if those recipes happen to be vegan and vegetarian, that's a huge bonus! We want to produce a good meal and have the kids eat it, that's the bottom line.


J: Do you think that these kids, as smart and well informed by the internet as they are, are aware of the growth of veganism? Do you think they respond well to its anti-establishment root? They're in this ideological awakening phase of their lives, where they're deciding who they are and what they believe in, and maybe eating factory-farmed meat isn't really fitting in with them anymore.


JF: Our students are consumers. In middle and high school, they're learning about the industry of food and watching documentaries like What the Health, and they're seeing these documentaries and then coming to lunch and seeing what we're offering them and not engaging with it because it's not what they want. They want fresher food and more modern choices, that use less pre-prepared ingredients.


And back to that Garinger piece - as a student, if you know the romaine on the salad bar came out of the garden in the back, and your buddy (or you!) helped grow it, that would make you way more likely to buy the menu item containing it, and that's what we want. And the rest of what we offer them has to live up to that new standard as well, or we'll lose them.


And when things start to happen at these 10 schools, when the staff buys in, and the parents and students do, and things start to change, the kids and parents and staff and managers talk to other school’s students and parents and managers. When these schools start producing real food in a real way and surpassing the business that these cafeterias have done in the past, then other schools will jump on. I've identified vegan/vegetarian meals as a weakness in our culinary program, and I think we’re missing those sales because we aren’t serving those students effectively.


J: Are you hearing from those kids that they're disenfranchised?


JF: Yeah we're not serving them well so they're not eating. And they're not going to the cafeteria anymore either, but not just because of that - we've done some focus groups about this - kids aren't going to the cafeteria as much anymore because of two things: lack of selection, and lack of time. The kids feel they don't have enough time to eat lunch anymore. 30 minutes is not enough. You either sprint to get there, or wait in line for 15 minutes! We need to analyse everything that we're doing, and if we want to improve upon lunch, the food could be great, but if the line is too long, kids won't stand in it. We need to figure out a way to shorten the line, and improve what we're offering, and get more kids through the lines. Food stations, getting packed food out and in the field so they can grab and go. The first thing they think when they see a long line is, I'm not standing in that!


J: Sure! And then they're hungry the rest of the day, and struggling to focus, and that's no good.


JF: Exactly.


J: One of the things I've enjoyed most about working with you so far is this - a lot of times, people that work for large or bureaucratic systems lose their ability to imagine big change. You don't seem to be like that - you're talking about getting lots of vegetarian and vegan items on the menu, growing your own produce for one of the largest school systems in the country, you're carving time out from your work life to come and work shifts in our kitchen to learn our vegetable prep tricks. You're keeping your mind open, and are looking into anything you think that will improve the student lunch experience.


"There are 147,000 students in CMS. It’s the 14th largest school system in the country. If we are doing less than our best to provide the best meals we can to these students, we're doing a disservice to them."


JF: For me the awakening started when I found out, at my last school system, that they were advertising for a chef. I asked myself, why are they advertising a chef job for a school cafeteria? That's not cheffing, that's manufacturing more than anything. Chefs cook more than pizza and chicken nuggets. But then actually going through the process and getting the job and working for that k-12 school system, I met a lot of talented people working in those kitchens, and I realized my recipes and my work would influence thousands of kid's school experiences EVERY DAY. It's such a huge mic to have! There are 147,000 students in CMS. It’s the 14th largest school system in the country. If we are doing less than our best to provide the best meals we can to these students, we're doing a disservice to them. In a lot of our schools, we are their only real meal of the day, and we have to set a higher standard for what we’re serving them. We can do better. We must do better.


J: I totally agree. You're asking them to be their best selves, and grow, and hold all these new responsibilities, but they're looking at the meals they're served and seeing a lot of cheap shortcuts. It's a weird double standard.


JF: It is. And the high school schedule is so hectic! These kids are AT SCHOOL at 645 in the morning and start class at 715. So breakfast is the most important meal of their day, especially in high school, so we need to be making things that are good for them, that they like, and it needs to be incredibly convenient as well. Smoothies, packed in a cup, ready to go, would be a good example.


J: Yup! You gotta get with the times, back to that plant-based piece. It's all the rage, and the kids will engage.


JF: For us, it’s a matter of how do we do more authentic/relevant food, and meet the volume we need to meet. 1000 lunches every day. 300 smoothies in 40 minutes. So you might need a 5 gallon bucket with a big spigot, and you immersion blend kale, bananas, protein powder down, and portion it out, put lids on it, chill it, and get it out there. We can innovate, if we can get the funding worked out.


And then there’s that age-old question, how do we make this dish that looks awesome in a one-off, how do we make it 1000 times in an hour? That's the kind of stuff that gets challenging with fresh components and vegetable prep technique.


J: I can completely relate to that on a Nourish (and obviously much smaller) level. If we have a side dish that takes 4 moves to pack - quinoa salad down, tempeh topper down, sprinkle of toasted pumpkin seeds, pea shoots on top - each one of those moves might take us 10-15 minutes, but on your scale, it might be 1.5 hours for every act. It gets out of control quickly!


JF: Right. Recipes you don't want any more than 5-6 ingredients, to keep it simple, because it has to stay efficient. And that's why partnering with people like yourself, seeing how you all work, and using your resources - like the Humane Society Forward Food Program, and all their pre-built, certified cafeteria-friendly recipes - it's fantastic! They know what they're doing, all I need to do is tap into the system and roll it out. That allows me to focus attention somewhere that needs something built from scratch for it.

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