Any restaurant manager will tell you that experiencing fine food is about far more than taste. It’s also about “presentation.” And ambience.
The same principle holds true for today’s school cafeterias.
Few kids would appreciate rose radishes or sculpted butter pats, but Stacey Kindred, the new cafeteria manager at Pleasant Lea Middle School in Lee’s Summit, has developed other ways to make the lunch rooms more pleasant for young diners.
That’s one reason Kindred, who previously managed the cafeteria at Summit Pointe Elementary School, has receive the School Nutrition Association’s highest honor. She is the non-profit group’s Regional Manager of the Year for a seven-state area. The award recognizes dedication and ingenuity to improve school meal programs.
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“Stacey Kindred is a great example that cafeteria managers’ duties do not end with serving healthy and delicious food to students, but also include creating a positive and enticing environment,” said Patricia Montague, CEO of School Nutrition Association. “She does whatever she can to better her students’ experience, while continuing to reach out to the larger community.”
So what does that look like in a Stacey Kindred cafeteria? For one thing, she calls it a café. Sounds more home-like, doesn’t it?
“I have face-to-face with students,” she said by email. “I ask them what they would want and how they would do things. I decorate with themes and dress up for special events.”
During sports season, she might put the names of students on a basketball or pom poms that hang in the cafe.
“Kids love to know they matter and have a voice,” she said.
Looking back on her childhood experiences, Kindred said the school lunchroom “can be little scary” for students in middle school and high school. Those memories influence her work today.
“It makes it easier if there is a friendly, smiley face,” she said.
Kindred has worked in school nutrition for 11 years, starting in Pleasant Hill and including eight years in the R-7 school district. She saw the job as being harmonious with family life.
“My youngest started kindergarten, and I thought it would be great to be able to work the same schedule as the kids,” said Kindred, who has taken numerous nutrition classes since joining the district.
Over the years, Kindred has learned what sells — and what doesn’t — in the school café. That’s important in a school district that serves 12,130 meals per day, on average.
“They still like the stand-bys — chicken nuggets and pizza,” she said. “Lunches are changing more. I’m seeing wraps, hummus with veggies and fresh choices. They seem to be open to try new foods.”
The favorites? Pizza, chicken and spicy fries, and spicy wraps.
Among newer trends are whole-grain quick breads with fruit added, yogurt parfait and grab-and-go options — a breakfast that the students take to class or a bag lunch with the choices already made.
A nutrition council meets monthly, which enables students to choose items they want from the menu. “We also do taste testing and sampling,” she said.
Food waste, of course, continues to be an issue. It makes a difference when food is offered rather than simply served. “If the kids can choose what they want, they are more likely to eat it.”
Kindred was honored in July at the School Nutrition Association’s national conference in Atlanta. She also will be recognized in Branson next month during the Missouri School Nutrition Conference.