“We get to know our students’ cultures. We make a gorgeous Thai golden curry without dairy. Now that won’t work at all schools, but some, based on demographics, it does. You just have to get to know your customer.”
He explains that he and his staff “don’t see our children as a federal dollar. They are our guests.”
He delights in a positive guest experience, just like anyone in the hospitality industry. “I love Funky Food Fridays. I bring in all the obscure vegetables for students and families to taste—celeriac root, daikon radish, jicama, golden kiwi…I love seeing kids try new foods that they weren’t sure they’d like, and they do. They are getting an understanding of what good food actually is!”
For LJ, giving Cheney’s students choice is a key to the success of the program. If a student goes home and tells her parent, ‘there is no food to eat,’ because she is not accustomed yet to the food available, the program won’t succeed. And I’ll hear from the parent!” LJ explained that he’ll provide 15 options, and tell the kids they only have to choose three, for example. Then the student has the power to make their own healthy choice.
“I’ll do whatever it takes.” His creativity is endless. “All kids like ranch dressing, right? If you put vegetables in ranch, kids will eat them. But ranch is full of sodium and processed ingredients—we can’t serve that. So, I created a low-fat, low-sodium, big flavor (of garlic and onion powder) alternative. It’s a little thinner than the commercial dressing, but kids can’t get enough of it at the salad bar! Kids also love the chicken and waffles, so now it’s gluten-free, whole muscle and whole grain–and they still love it.”
Since launching the program in 2011, Empire Health Foundation has worked with partner school districts like Cheney to collect students’ height and weight data each fall and spring, and they use that data to calculate students’ body mass index (BMI), which is a common measure used to assess overweight and obesity. The data has helped them track rates over time and measure the overall health impact of the program.
By year five of the scratch cooking program they were seeing measurable health impacts. The average BMI among K-5 students in the Cheney School District who had been overweight or had obesity dropped 4.5%, a statistically significant decline.3 The change was very encouraging and helped make the case for continuing and expanding the program. Equally as encouraging, food waste had decreased across the district and students have begun to embrace the new healthier menu.