School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Chad and the Decorah Community!


Chad Elliott, has been the Nutrition Director and Culinary Specialist in Decorah Community School District for 10 years. The district has an enrollment of 1,600 students (approximately 20 percent) in a town of about 6,000 in rural northeast Iowa. When school were closed, the Decorah team packed 5 lunches and 5 breakfasts for pick up and delivery. The nutrition department also delivered meals to families in need when bus drivers were not available. Decorah schools have been back in session full-time since January 2021 with a few families still picking up five day meal packs for remote learners. Participation has not yet returned to pre-COVID levels and Chad is hopeful that they will be able to get back to full-service nutrition next year.

Homemade breakfast pizza with juice and yogurt

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

According to Chad, the availability of product was the biggest challenge for their department over the past year. When they needed non-perishable, pre-portioned meal components, they could not get them from their main purveyor. Disposable items for packing food items were also in short supply and unpredictable when ordered. Fortunately northeast Iowa is a mecca for local food and the Decorah Community School District (DCSD) is fortunate to have locally produced foods on their menus every day. When products were unavailable from their usual distributor, local farmers and producers provided items through the Iowa Food Hub that the school could use in grab and go bags. These items included cheese curds, yogurt, meat stick, and a variety of vegetables.

Local farmers and producers provide products for bulk meals in 2020

DCSD had extensive school gardens and grow houses that provided produce for school meals in years past. Production from these programs suffered during COVID but Chad and his staff are eagerly looking forward to onions, Bibb lettuce, beet greens and many herbs this spring. DCSD has been famous for many scratch-cooked items; these herb bread and rolls served on April 8, 2021, shows that the tradition continues.

Bread and rolls with parsley and thyme

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

I cannot express how proud I am of our nutrition staff,” says Chad Elliott. When fear of the unknown was rampant, the nutrition employees stepped up and selflessly changed their work schedules and hours so meals could get prepared and handed out to families in need. When schools shut down for remote learning, nutrition staff remained flexible and continued to build meals each day for deliveries to students, often using their personal vehicles each day due to the lack of available bus drivers. Nutrition department employees have clearly embraced one of Chad’s favorite Martin Luther King’s quotes: The time is always right to do what’s right.

Decorah nutrition employees

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Before COVID-19, Decorah had done minimal cross-training in the district’s six kitchens. Over the past year, they increased their cross-training by necessity – in order to maintain service throughout the district. Cross training is now something that they use to open up staff to new strategies, positions and ways to get things done. It has given employees a new perspective and appreciation for the work being done in other kitchens.

School Food on the Frontlines: It’s been a COVID year for Doug, Heather and Burlington’s Team!


Doug Davis, SNS, Food Service Director, and Heather Torrey, MS, RD, SNS, Assistant Director, have been working together at Burlington School Food Project for the past four school years. The district has 4,000 enrolled students with about 50 percent being eligible for free/reduced meals pre-pandemic, when their ADP was 65 percent at both breakfast and lunch. Even though both Heather and Doug were out of state when COVID-19 hit, within 48 hours of school closures they were serving meals using a completely new service model. The forty department employees were divided into pods of 10 and they started serving one bag with one day of meals curbside for approximately 500 students, plus meals for the homeless housed in local hotels (3 meals a day, 7 days per week). Both Doug and Heather admit that things were very tough in the beginning and they were able to make it through because of extraordinary assistance from other school employees, like the paraprofessionals who organized and staffed food distribution points. They also deeply appreciate the support for the Vermont state child nutrition agency and their food distributor Reinhart Foodservice LLC.

What was the biggest challenge that you had to overcome in the past year?

Doug and Heather are quick to acknowledge the operational challenges that were top-of-mind, especially in the first weeks of school closures. Like most other districts, they struggled with staffing issues, supply chain disruptions, and transportation concerns. However they also stress the underlying emotional challenges as well. Even though everyone was focused on the need to feed children, there was anxiety about a deadly disease with lots of unknowns for those who did not have an option to work remotely. Heather admits that she worried about “being the one to take out my whole team.”

Meal Kit distribution during a Vermont winter requires the right vehicles and equipment

What achievement are you the proudest of in the past year?

The successes of the Burlington School Food Project over the past year demonstrate how a team came together, got work done and built a unique model to feed children. After a participation dip in the summer, the Burlington team is now distributing 20,000 quality meals per week in meal kits containing 7 breakfasts, 7 lunches, 7 suppers, and 7 snacks. There is a weekly vegetarian option, often based on foods reflecting the diversity of Burlington (where over 40 languages are spoken in a high school of 1,000 students). 

Although there were more unknowns than knowns over the year, Heather and Doug are not surprised about what the team was able to do. The Burlington School Food Project has worked hard to be integrated into the education process of the district and into sustainable agriculture in Vermont. In March 2021, they partnered with the local Couching Lion Maple Farm and distributed a Harvest of the Month maple syrup jug in every meal kit. The farm is owned by a teacher in the district, making more connections between education, local agriculture, and delicious meals for children. Moving forward, Burlington School Food Project plans more direct contact with Vermont farmers and food producers. Since they know that the Meal Box model will continue through September, they have started calling local farmers and food producers with a heads up about the volume the district will need so they can plan their planting and harvest schedule. “Leveraging buying power to support the local economy and provide high quality foods to our families has been — and will continue to be a core focus for our program.”

Couching Lion Maple Syrup, Vermont Harvest of the Month

What innovation have you made that you will continue using in the future?

Rather than a procedure or a food product, the Burlington School Food Project will take a mindset into the future. As Doug Davis said, “I will never look at a problem or situation and think we cannot do that. I now know that there is nothing that we cannot do. We can meet any challenge.

Heather has a slightly different take: “I went back to my dietetics basics with the ADIME model to constantly assess what we are doing and how we can make it better. We started curbside meal service with one model, saw that we were not reaching as many folks as it should, and we switched it up. Now we’re in the M/E phase of our Family Meal Kits and make subtle tweaks each week to better meet the needs of our community.”

Classic and Vegetarian Meal Kits

31 Days of #RealSchoolFood: Chef Robert is a #RealSchoolHero

The School Nutrition Foundation recently announced its 2015 School Nutrition Hero AwardsChef Robert Rusan from Richmond-Maplewood Heights School District in Maplewood, Missouri, is one of the honorees. Robert has been one of my heroes since I started School Meals That Rock in 2011. Very early in the life of our Facebook page, Chef Robert started sending in photos – of his immaculate kitchen, school garden produce and mouth-watering, house-made meals.

Chef Robert Rusan, Maplewood, Missouri (2011)

Chef Robert Rusan, Maplewood, Missouri (2011)

There are many reasons to honor Chef Robert Rusan. The two that really stand out to me are his ability to connect young people with their food – and his commitment to the freshest ingredients possible. This collage from Food Revolution Day 2014 illustrates both. Serving Asparagus Frittata in a high school would be awesome all by itself, but Robert went way beyond that: “Today MRH Teen Cuisine prepared fresh asparagus frittata. The asparagus are from the school garden at ECC and the eggs are from our own MRH chickens. I would like to give a special shout out to our Seed to Table Coordinator/teacher Chef Almut Marino who organized the day!

Asparagus Frittata, MRH Team Cuisine, Food Revolution 2014

Asparagus Frittata, MRH Teen Cuisine, Food Revolution 2014

It is very difficult to pick out one or two photos which really show the commitment of Chef Robert and his district to fresh food and student involvement. This collage and Robert’s own caption do a pretty good job: “Good growers + good food + good cooks = good students.” To get the full flavor of why Chef Robert Rusan is a 2015 SNF School Nutrition Hero, I recommend going to his Facebook page and scrolling through the photos. I guarantee that you will be impressed!!

Good growers + good food + good cooks = good students

Good growers + good food + good cooks = good students


3 Secrets for Getting Kids to Make Smart Food Choices

[Thanks to Kern Halls of Ingenious Culinary Concepts for originally publishing this on his new blog.]

As school nutrition professionals, we are required to serve certain food items – and we want our customers to enjoy nutrient-rich, “good-for-them” meals and snacks.  While there is never any guarantee that every child is going to like every food (do you?!), there are some fundamental, “secret” strategies for helping children make smarter food choices at school. Here are three of my favorites:

1.    Presentation, presentation, presentation.

We all eat with our eyes – and our nose and ears – long before we ever put the food in our mouths. School-aged customers are looking for colorful, eye-appealing choices that smell wonderful – and maybe even “sizzle” in the skillet. A recent study with pre-teen children indicated that the young people preferred greater food diversity than adults. On average, they preferred seven different items on their plates and six different colors. This study is one of many from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab that indicate the importance of presentation to children, including on school lunch lines.

Want children to eat “what’s good for them”? Make sure that it looks, smells and sounds incredibly delicious!

From Kalispell, Montana, these rainbow salads would appeal to any student!!

From Kalispell, Montana, these rainbow salads would appeal to any student!!

2.    Taste, taste, taste.

This should go without saying: Taste reigns supreme in the food world. While you can get kids to take a bite or two of almost anything, you will not get them to repeat the experience or truly enjoy the food unless it tastes good. How do you get food to go from OK to WOW in terms of taste buds? The “secret” is culinary skills – planning, storing, preparing, seasoning and cooking to maximize flavor and texture. Culinary boot camps, guest chefs and chefs on staff have become popular for good reasons. They all help school meals move beyond their reputation for processed blandness to more complex, sophisticated and spicy foods that appeal to today’s consumers.

Want children to eat “what’s good for them”? Make sure your food tastes so wonderful that they want to come back for more tomorrow.

Denver (CO) Public Schools served Albondigas with zucchini, bell peppers, onions, potatoes, cilantro and carrots, as well as homemade turkey meatballs. Students at Schmitt Elementary raved about them on the playground and at other schools students asked for seconds!

Denver (CO) Public Schools served Albondigas with zucchini, bell peppers, onions, potatoes, cilantro and carrots, as well as homemade turkey meatballs. Students at Schmitt Elementary raved about them on the playground and at other schools students asked for seconds!

3.    Service with a smile.

Anyone who has every worked in any kind of foodservice with any age customers knows the value of a smile. In school cafeterias, the smiles of the school nutrition professionals directly translate into improved academic performance. That’s because S.M.I.L.E. stands for School Meals Improve Learning Environments. When children are well nourished, they are ready to succeed – better able to focus, concentrate and learn in the classroom. Good customer service is one of most effective ways to insure that children will enjoy whatever is served at school breakfast, lunch and snack – whether they know that it is good for them or not!!

Want children to eat “what’s good for them”? Remember to S.M.I.L.E. and invite your customer to enjoy the appealing, delicious food you have prepared. 

In Lake Stevens, Washington, their "Build a Rainbow" Salad Bar is served with many smiles.

In Lake Stevens, Washington, their “Build a Rainbow” Salad Bar is served with many smiles.