I grew up in a large Italian family who owned a catering business, so you could say I ate very well. I always thought the whole world ate like we did, until I went to college. I attended and received my BA in Culinary Arts from Johnson & Wales University. I realized that we are what our parents/ adults expose us to. Chefs in training were eating things like Spaghetti O’s! Yuck! It was very eye opening for me and nutrition became a personal issue. Eventually, I did a fellowship with the university and taught intern students from all over the country. This was great to meet and teach, as well as take skills from others. I always enjoyed teaching/instructing and wanted to return to that kind of environment. I worked as professional chef for 15 years with many experiences, mostly in fine dining. I starting at MCCPS about 2 ½ years ago. I never dreamt all these years later I would be teaching middle school students how to hold a knife, how to make pizza from scratch or Asian noodles with vegetables from the local farms. Most students embrace it and for me it has been extremely rewarding. To watch the students absorb these life skills is amazing.
My background as a chef has really made the difference at the school from a financial standpoint. Chefs by nature are very cost conscious. Also knowledge of recipes and how to utilize every item without much waste is common restaurant/kitchen practice. Everything we do is with costs in mind. We use seasonal produce because it’s cheaper. This enables us to support the local farms and utilize what we produce in our gardens. This also allows us to be creative with our monthly menu. We do participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). We process all these “commodity” foods in house. There are many regulations some of which I don’t understand but we need to comply with. For instance you may already know that French fries (potatoes) are considered a vegetable?!
We have a few rules in our kitchen. We don’t serve fries, chicken patties, nuggets or fingers (once a year we make them from scratch as a treat). We only use fresh chicken, meats and vegetables to produce our menus. Once these items were gone, the students eventually stopped asking for them. Most students are willing to try new foods. If they want all those other things, their parents can make the call. Our participation is over 50%. We use our fresh salad bar for trials or we give out a free sample. That’s right – FREE! It’s amazing what kids will try when it’s free. That’s how I got them to eat curry. We also offer seasonal whole fruit for free. This is our effort to promote eating fresh fruit. We put out a big bowl of fruit 2 to 3 times a day. We work these items into our budget. A little something free helps to gets students to try new things.
Using food in the classroom to learn about different cultures. The students take foreign language so we do things like French and Spanish Buffets. We have the students do the research and translate the food items. We then have them test the recipes in the kitchen. My staff (2) and I produce and serve these items for lunch. We also encourage students to help and participate in the kitchen. They are assigned to rotating lunch clean up crewand are responsible for doing dishes, cleaning tables, and composting leftovers and waste. Our teachers actually eat the same lunch the students eat and even sit with them.
We are very proud of the school and our nutrition program. The program has come a long way and we keep building on it and continue to try and be innovative. We have all “ drank the Kool-Aid “ as they say. We are passionate about what we feed and offer our students and faculty. We admit that we can’t change everyone completely but a little goes a long way.
7 thoughts on “June’s Titanium Spork Award Recipient: Laura DeSantis”
Good article! It is vital that students learn and develop healthy eating habits while they are young. This must be instilled by the parents as well.
I just read an article on Yahoo this morning about how some school districts are attempting to change their cafeterias. I'm impressed. It would be great if all schools could do programs like these to show kids that food can be wonderful! Here is the link:
I like that the students are given responsibilities
This is great! Thanks for the "acceptance speech." It was very informative!
You are a gal after my own heart! I was nodding my head in agreement while reading your speech. Love what you are doing! Own your Spork proudly – it's very well deserved!
Congratulations, Chef Laura! The students at your school are lucky to have such an awesome person heading their nutrition department. Every school should have YOU!!! I especially love your ideas about FREE samples (kids love FREE as much as their parents do) and the whole education and responsibility piece. We've got to make education an important part of getting kids to eat and enjoy better food.
It's so encouraging to hear that someone has figured out how to make school lunch work the way it should. Congratulations, Chef Laura!
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