Recently we sat down with Carl Williams, Executive Director of School Nutrition at Detroit Public Schools, a customer of Health-e Pro. We’d heard about the innovative programs and creative measures the district was applying, from hiring chefs to raised garden beds at each school, and we wanted to learn more. Where can a district find the money for these initiatives? How are the garden beds maintained? What are the results? Read more with our fascinating interview with Carl below:

Health-e Pro: How did your district come to the decision to hire chefs?

Carl: The chef positions were created by the previous executive director. The thought process behind it was this: having a district this size, you’ve got to have someone who is professionally trained in the culinary arts to put together a menu that competes against the food shops and restaurants that surround the schools–McD’s, Pizza Hut, Burger King. You’re competing against those restaurants, trying to keep the students on campus. It’s us stepping our game up by tapping into what the students want. There are lots of good culinary schools in Michigan, so we can have someone on board that can give the students what they deserve.

What changes have taken place as a result of this chef-driven focus?

When I took over as Executive Director at Detroit Public Schools in April 2018, one of our initiatives was to move away from heat-and-serve environment, moving to modified speed-scratch environment. We’re not doing full scratch as of yet–we’re not bringing in raw protein–but we are creating our dishes using recipes. For example, with a Sloppy Joe, we bring in pre-cooked ground beef crumbles or turkey crumbles, create our own sauce and mix it all together, and season it the way we want it to be seasoned. The menu by the end of the year will be 100% speed scratch, trying to eliminate all of our heat-and-serve items, so that’s one thing that we’re doing new here.

Having chefs on board is good because they understand flavor; there’s a science behind it. For example, over the last couple of years, we’ve had a partnership with Life Time Foundation where they have assisted us by giving us funding to remove “The Harmful 7” foods–high-fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors/colors. All those ingredients taste good to the kids. Having a chef who understands the science behind it all, to create great tasting food without those ingredients, is key.

How do the garden beds play into all of this?

Right now, we have over 80 schools in Detroit Public Schools with garden beds and a two-acre farm. Even though we do a decent job, I’ve charged the chefs to get 100% of our produce on our own, completely into the cafeteria and onto the plate of the kids. Right now we do a good job at it, but during the seasons where we’re on break, we go downtown to Eastern Market and sell our produce; we want to move away from that. We purchased a couple of blast chillers, and have asked the chef to let me know what other equipment he needs, so as we harvest food from the garden, we can store it, freeze it, and have it ready for when break is over.

How did the garden beds start in your district?

The garden beds initiative began with the prior Executive Director who grew up on a farm. She was very knowledgeable about agriculture and farming, and passionate about our farmers and helping our farmers survive and grow. Miss Wiggins saw that many of our children aren’t exposed to enough about agriculture and farming and she wanted to find a way to do it on a wide scale for our school district. So they began building six garden beds at each school, going after farm-to-school grants and getting funding for it. We’re very consistent with getting a lot of grant funding for our farm-to-school program; the last grant we got was almost $100k, so we’re very active at finding funding for it.

That’s incredible. What other programs do you utilize to help the education process with these garden beds?

This year we started a partnership with Big Green, which is an organization that helps to help put on learning gardens at schools throughout the nation. They supply garden beds at schools; they also assist with curriculum for science teachers: the kids are involved with growing the food; learning about the food; the science behind it; and creating an environment–putting benches out there and creating areas for shade. They’re going to help our other 20-30 schools that don’t currently have garden beds, giving each one a very nice garden facility.

What’s grown in these gardens? And how are they managed? Do the students get involved?

We grow our own spring mix that we put on our menu. Squash, zucchini, watermelon, spinach, a whole bunch of other things.

Last year we had two garden managers who managed the day-to-day operations. Over the summer, we had 20 students we hired to work our gardens. This year, one of the garden managers is to work side-by-side with the chef to come up with creative ways to make sure everything we grow in the garden is getting to our cafeterias. That accountability will be key.

What’s been some of the feedback you’ve gotten?

I can say very confidently, the Garden Collaborative, that part of what we do is our shining star. It gets all the kudos. We do a good job in the cafeteria too, but that garden piece gets recognized and applauded and so many folks love it. This year I’ve had at least 3-4 visits from out-of-state districts to visit our district and tour our facility.

The kids love it. Every month we have multiple field trips: going to our farm, or a dairy farm nearby. We try to expose them to so much. We partner with Wayne State University/Michigan State Extension, to help us with curriculum around the gardening, so that our teachers have curriculum they can integrate with their classroom curriculum. We bring teachers onto our farm quarterly for inservice and professional development training. Monthly we have trainings as well. We’re starting a new program now where our district has a parent-engagement department, and  parent classes, so the parents can come in and we can improve on our education piece as far as letting parents know what we’re doing. There’s a reason why our hamburger doesn’t taste like a local fast food joint: it doesn’t have all that junk in it. We’re working to communicate our message to our community.

Detroit Public Schools gets a lot of good feedback. We were on our local news, Channel 4, with our chef, highlighting our menu items, because we’ve increased our options to our kids this year. We have, at a minimum, a hot entree, a hot vegetarian entree, salad bars in many of our schools, pre-made salads (Caesar, Chef’s salad, etc.) and a nice sub sandwich. In our high schools we do that, plus 5-6 options on top of that.

What changes have you seen in the kids since these changes have been made? In your staff?

This year our district’s enrollment overall went down 5%, but our lunch average daily participation went up 2%. We’re three months into many of these changes, and the numbers are showing great progress; even though we have fewer students, we feed a higher percentage than we did before. We now feed 86% of student enrollment.

We also started a student advisory committee this year, so a variety of students–from high school down to elementary–meets with us the third Tuesday of every month. We have a teacher involved, a parent involved, and the school nurse. The students’ role is to give us feedback on what they see in schools and kitchens. Is there consistency with menu that they’re served? Is it the same as what’s posted on the website? Basically, are we doing what we say we’re going to do for them? Their role is to report back on us, to give us feedback on the taste of food, what we need to take off the menu, what are we missing; they help us with menu development and feedback. Even though we do taste tests throughout the schools, this committee has been tasked to take on all taste tests.

We do the taste tests first and then they tell us, “Let’s go with this one at the high school”, so they assist us with making a decision of what we present to the students. That has given us some good word of mouth; the kids have ownership and they tell their friends. “I selected this. I came up with this!” It’s been fun.

We were strategic in some of the students we added to that council. In this age with millennials, technology, and social media, they post–very quickly–pictures of your food if it’s not looking right, and we’ve had a couple of those students. Guess what? Those students are on our advisory committee. We engage those students because they spoke up in the past. It means that this is a student who cares, who’s engaged, and I want to encourage that. I want them to feel like when you speak up, nobody should try to suppress your voice. It should be encouraged, whether I’m in agreeance with your voice or not.

We still have a long way to go. We have good relationships with other districts who are doing this well, we try to share best practices, and assist each other in being better. Detroit, we do a lot of good things. By 2020, it should look even better.

Thank you so much to Carl for taking the time to talk with us! We came away absolutely inspired by what you’re doing at Detroit Public Schools and how you’re engaging your staff, students, parents, and community in making school nutrition a highlight.