By Mike Marsee
It’s lunchtime at Farristown Middle School and Katie McClain would like you to try something different.
McClain is the library media specialist at the Madison County school, but on this Tuesday – Teacher Tuesday – she is part of the cafeteria staff during the lunch period. She is dishing out bowls of her white chicken chili.
Teacher Tuesday has been a hit at Farristown Middle since it was introduced shortly after the start of this school year. Faculty members submit some of their favorite recipes and the cafeteria staff picks one to be prepared and served at the school.
“I think it’s great,” McClain said. “I love that the cafeteria staff wants us to be involved in what the students are eating, and I like that it changes up our normal menu.”
The Teacher Tuesday program, which is held roughly once a month, serves both to bring the faculty, staff and students closer together and to increase interest in school lunches. Valerie Crouch, manager of the Schools Branch in the Kentucky Department of Education’s Division of School and Community Nutrition, said it succeeds on both counts.
“I commend the manager on her efforts for school staff involvement with menu planning in hopes of finding recipes that boost participation in their National School Lunch Program,” Crouch said. “Having the new menu item highlighted as the featured item of the day and having the school staff greet students with a smile and serve the dish on the service line goes a long way in creating a very inviting atmosphere in the lunchroom.”
Begley, who is in her fourth year as the cafeteria manager at Farristown Middle and has been in food service in the Madison County schools for 12 years, said she got the idea to have teachers submit recipes after reading a book on management given to her by guidance counselor, John Knuckles. The book, “Fish: A Proven Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results,” focuses on the workplace environment at Seattle’s Pike Place Market.
Coincidentally, it was Knuckles’ recipe for spicy chicken Alfredo that was selected as the dish for the first Teacher Tuesday in September by a vote of the kitchen staff.
“It’s my wife’s recipe, but I help prepare it at home,” Knuckles said. “I knew the kids would love it and I knew it used ingredients we would probably already have.”
Knuckles rolled up his sleeves and went to work in the kitchen, chopping ingredients and helping with food preparation. He was ready and willing to serve his dish up when lunchtime came.
“It was a way where I could engage with the students on a different level,” he said. “Serving was pretty intense, but it was great getting to see the kids’ faces as they came in.”
On the Teacher Tuesday that featured McClain’s white chicken chili, she also was happy to serve. She used sample-sized cups to offer students a taste of the chili, and many of those who tried a sample took a full-sized bowl. The kitchen staff made enough chili for 100 servings, and very little was left by the end of the lunch period.
“The sample cups definitely helped. I had a lot of students come back and say it was really good,” McClain said. “I know I’ll have students who will come into the library and say they tried it and tell me whether they liked it or not, so we’ll have that connection.”
McClain said she thinks students get a kick out of knowing that one of the teachers is involved in what they’re eating on Teacher Tuesdays.
“They see us in there serving the food, and the students want to give something a try because of who it came from,” she said. “We’ve had meals that maybe they wouldn’t normally eat at home or foods that maybe they’ve never had before that they’re willing to try because a teacher had the recipe.”
“It engages the teachers and bridges that gap, showing the students that teachers are real, that they go home and cook, too,” Knuckles said. “It gives them another way to bond with their teachers.”
Begley said she was shocked at how quickly the recipes came rolling in after she emailed teachers to ask for their submissions. Once a recipe is selected, it is Begley’s job to make sure the dish meets the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s nutrition requirements for school lunches and to order any ingredients that she doesn’t have on hand.
Begley said her goal is to make the dish taste just like it does when the teacher prepares it in his or her own kitchen, but she did make some adjustments to a pumpkin soup recipe submitted by 8th-grade science teacher Amy Poynter that was served in October.
“I have to say, I think her soup was better than mine,” Poynter said. “She turned it into something really amazing. It was neat to be able to tell the students, ‘Try the soup.’ A lot of the kids said, ‘I never thought I’d like it, but it was really, really good.’”
Begley doesn’t spend her entire work day in the kitchen. She said she enjoys getting out into the rest of the school to talk with students and teachers.
“Interacting with the students is my highlight, it’s what I really enjoy with this job,” she said. “Teachers being involved and partnering with us is just icing on the cake.”
Opportunities for those partnerships pop up all the time.
When Farristown Middle adopted “Adventure Awaits” as its theme for this school year, Begley created “Adventures in Eating,” extending the school’s camp theme to the cafeteria with decorations and camp food, such as s’mores.
“She is into making sure she is connected with what we’re doing,” Acting Principal Angie Alexander said.
Begley also works with groups of students in the kitchen, teaching them everything from how to cook to how to determine the amount of food needed for a large meal, such as one that a group of students prepared for the faculty last year.
In one project last year, Begley charged two teams of students to come up with an original breakfast menu idea, had them taste-test it and served the winning item in the cafeteria for several days.
“She and her staff are fantastic at supporting us in the big ways, but also in the little ways,” Poynter said. “What we try to do to help support them is to encourage our kids to eat lunch, to try new things.”
MORE INFO …
Angie Alexander firstname.lastname@example.org
Michelle Begley email@example.com
John Knuckles firstname.lastname@example.org
Katie McClain email@example.com
Amy Poynter firstname.lastname@example.org
Valerie Crouch email@example.com