Denise Kater works with simple goals.
As the $ 253 Emporia Public Schools Food Services Director, Kater is the person who orders the meals served to students across the district. She is always on the lookout for new ways to improve the breakfast and lunch menus that her nine schools have to offer.
Sometimes the improvements are minor, like when Kater’s cafeterias started serving Rice Chex, a cereal with no added sugar. But other times the upgrades are a bit bigger. Such a boost came earlier this month when the district announced a partnership with the Life Time Foundation that will inject just under $ 100,000 into the district’s foodservice program.
The partnership is the single most significant improvement to the foodservice program under Kater, and she and the foundation believe it will be a transformative step in dining halls across the district.
“It’s really easy for me,” Kater said. “This is an opportunity to offer better and more nutritious food to children in Emporia schools. This is why we are all here. We love our children.
The deal, announced on September 4, has the potential to exponentially improve the food Emporia students find on their meal trays for years to come. As part of this partnership, the foundation has committed $ 80,000 in direct funding for the district’s school feeding program over the next three years.
The collaboration aims to introduce healthy, clean-label foods and ingredients into menus and meals and to increase full-fledged cooking as a way to eliminate highly processed foods from school meals. In addition to the funding, Kater’s team will also receive assistance from Life Time Nutrition Project Manager Megan Flynn and Chief Consultant Kent Getzin.
The partnership announcement also came with an immediate grant of $ 17,460 to the district, a donation made possible by 120 Garmin DK athletes who chose to donate their canceled cycling event registration fees to schools. The grant will be used for COVID-19 relief and the purchase of items such as personal protective equipment.
For Kater and the entire district, these immediate funds are crucial to continuing to fight COVID-19.
“When COVID-19 hit, Denise and her team, just like any other school district in the country, had to start shopping for PPE and other COVID-related items,” said Valeria La Rosa, senior principal of the Life Time Foundation program. “That’s when the race organizers decided to give their runners the option to donate their registration fees to support the local school district as they tried to ensure that no child was hungry and protecting the staff. “
As Emporia Schools continue to fight the spread of the virus, Kater and her catering team look to the future in their new partnership.
Life Time Foundation and Emporia schools got to know each other after Life Time Fitness introduced DK, Emporia’s annual gravel cycling event, to her family in 2018. As of Spring 2019, La Rosa and the foundation were already communicating with Kater , and over the past two years the district and foundation have worked together to form this new partnership.
Since 2011, the Life Time Foundation has partnered with 25 schools in 13 states and reached over 1.5 million students through their efforts to improve school meals. At the heart of the foundation’s project is to eliminate what it calls the “7 noxious”, a group of processed or artificial ingredients, from meals served in school canteens. One of the main elements in eliminating such ingredients like trans fats and high fructose corn syrup is to move away from easy to produce and ready to use dishes and embrace the kitchen scratch.
It is a plan that aims not only to enable students to eat healthier, but also to eat better.
“We want kids to eat more fresh foods and vegetables, and the more scratchy cooking you do, the more control you have over your ingredients. La Rosa said.
The $ 80,000 committed by the foundation will allow Kater to revamp the district’s food service program. With the funds, Emporia Schools will not only be able to invest in new kitchen equipment and staff training, but they will also receive time with Flynn and Getzin, the dietitian and chef who really make the Life Time Foundation project work. .
As Chief Nutritionist, Flynn will serve as the catalyst to get the project started. Having visited Emporia several times before, Flynn will be tasked with working with Kater and the Emporia foodservice team to assess the ingredients and food labels involved in meals, looking for harmful ingredients to be phased out. With this assessment, Flynn and Kater will formulate a plan for moving forward.
“Our goal is to provide our kids with healthier, more nutritious options and something they are interested in that isn’t just traditional chicken nuggets,” said Kater. “Anytime we can get healthy food into the hands of our kids, it’s really amazing. “
With Flynn’s job done, Getzin will perhaps take on the toughest challenge – taking those good, healthy ingredients and making them taste great. With 40 years of experience in the culinary world, Getzin has made a name for himself in the school catering industry since he left the restaurant kitchen and began working with the Life Time Foundation several years ago. years.
With the information handed to it by Flynn and Kater, Getzin will work with the district, its kitchen staff and students to build a menu of healthy items and scratch recipes that maintain mass appeal. In hands-on training sessions with district kitchen staff, Getzin will work on techniques to equip staff with applicable skills that will enable them to cook from scratch and continue to expand and broaden the breakfast and lunch menus. lunch with new recipes and quality ingredients.
By the third year, the cafeterias in the neighborhood should be completely different.
“So far, Life Time has amassed a fairly wide variety of own-branded ingredients that are easily incorporated into school menus,” Getzin said. “So once we’ve figured out what the students like and don’t like, we can work with the staff and continue to develop recipes around this wide range of ingredients until we’ve completed a menu. which works. “
For Kater and the entire Emporia School District, the partnership offers promise and innovation for the future. In the years to come, students who pass through its cafeterias can expect healthier, more nutritious meals and better quality food on their trays. According to Kater, her kitchen staff are already impatient and waiting for the opportunity to hone their skills under Getzin’s guidance.
For Emporia’s schools, its students and the Life Time Foundation, the partnership promises to be a win-win.
“It’s life changing,” Kater said. “We are hungry just by reading the recipes. We’re really going to be able to take things up a notch. I think the kids will have a blast. Hope they are as excited as we are.