Amanda Henning spent much of 2019 planning a steady cycle of hands-on programming for the 2020-21 school year, including Family Cooking Nights. A free afterschool nutrition initiative for K-6 students at Lockport City School District (LCSD), Family Cooking Nights are designed to encourage healthy eating and family dinners. Students participate in a Farm to School nutrition lesson and cooking demonstration led by a local chef. Using local, in-season produce, students prepare the recipe with their families and enjoy their meal with other families in the school’s cafeteria.
Henning is the Ag Team Leader at Cornell Cooperative Extension, and as part of the Farm to School program, works to increase the consumption of New York grown and produced foods in schools in order to strengthen local agriculture, improve student health, and promote regional food systems.
Like many educators throughout CCE, Henning was forced to decide between canceling or finding alternative program delivery methods when the COVID-19 pandemic derailed her plans. Rather than tabling the initiative until she could safely return to in-person instruction and events, Henning instead focused on shifting the programming out of the cafeteria and into students’ homes.
From Family Cooking Nights to Take Home Meal Kits
In order to go “remote,” a “meal kit” style delivery was determined to be the most viable alternative for families to enjoy Farm to School activities from home. Through collaborative efforts with LCSD’s Food Service Director Tom Heagerty, and food service workers, the plan was made to pilot the take-home meal kits at George Southard Elementary School in October 2020.
Transitioning the program delivery wasn’t without hurdles. It involved logistical planning, creating instructional video resources, and overcoming delivery challenges, but it also opened new doors to expand the program by welcoming new participants.
Two recipes were selected for the pilot: three sisters’ soup and easy cornbread, both of which showcase local ingredients. The soup included NYS black beans, a new product for the district. CCE’s Farm to School Educator, Mollie McDonough, used the new “meal kit” format as an opportunity to conduct a foodservice staff training at Lockport on preparing the dried beans for the kits. The food service team experimented with different methods to identify the best way to produce a tender product that was ready to use in a variety of recipes.
“It was incredibly rewarding seeing a district takes its first steps in local procurement and learning how to use a local product like dry beans,” said McDonough. “Foodservice staff and lunch monitors were very enthusiastic about their involvement.”
Lockport staff measured and portioned the ingredients, and packed them into reusable Farm to School shopping bags, which included flexible cutting boards and safety knives. McDonough created a follow-along educational video for each recipe, with information on the origins and uses for each local ingredient, cooking safety tips, and basic knife skills. Each meal kit included a recipe card with a QR code for students to scan with their school-issued iPads, bringing up the demonstration videos.
In October, 200 kits were sent home with students enrolled in the six Lockport City School District’s elementary schools. The feedback from families was overwhelmingly positive.
“My son really loved preparing the cooking the Three Sisters Soup and cornbread … he wanted to share his soup with everyone,” said Stephanie Wrobel, whose son, Sebastian Wrobel, is a 5th grader at Emmet Belknap Intermediate School. “We’ve made it twice since then and he enjoys having his own cutting board and knife. He offers to help more in the kitchen now.”
“My son really loved preparing the cooking the Three Sisters Soup and cornbread … he wanted to share his soup with everyone. We’ve made it twice since then and he enjoys having his own cutting board and knife. He offers to help more in the kitchen now.”
The meal kits generated enough interest from families within the district that the effort was repeated in November, with another 200 kits going out before Thanksgiving.
For Justin Rogers, CCE Niagara County’s executive director, it was an eye-opening experience to see the take-home meal kits generate a substantial increase in Farm to School participation within the district.
“The take-home meal kits were initially just a response to limitations on in-person events, but by rethinking our program delivery methods we ended up reaching far more families than we had through in-person events,” said Rogers. “This experience has made us more versatile and will help us expand our programming to better serve our community’s needs.”
The success of the meal kit program at LCSD has had a cascading effect, with the North Tonawanda School District’s Food Service Director, Ben Glurich, expressing interest in conducting a similar project in their district. In December 2020, approximately 500 snack kits were sent home with students in coordination with their Curbside Grab & Go Meal service.
“The take-home meal kits have been a great way to connect to remote families, increase awareness of the availability of school meal pick-up programs, and improve the perception of the school lunch program in general.”
“The take-home meal kits have been a great way to connect to remote families, increase awareness of the availability of school meal pick-up programs, and improve the perception of the school lunch program in general,” noted Amanda Henning, CCE Niagara County’s Ag Program Team Leader. “While the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t allow us to stick to our original plan, through partner collaborations and adjusting our program delivery we executed the next best thing.”
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